The lights have been hung on the eaves, the Christmas tree has been selected and appropriately decorated, and my nose is picking up the familiar scent of Christmas baking coming from the kitchen. Our home is ready for the Christmas holidays and as I walk through the mall the signs in the window of the local clothing store entice me to take advantage of the significant savings on offer. I shuttle my children off to church on a Saturday morning for an extra practice for the Christmas program. To top it off, I hear Boney M’s rendition of “Mary’s Boy Child” as I sip my eggnog latte at the local coffee shop. The season of expectation is once again upon us and quite frankly I’m a bit weary of the hype even before it has begun. It is that time of year and once again I’m faced with an all too familiar decision; how will I choose to celebrate Christmas this year?
This year a personal study on the effects of media on faith development has me thinking about the way in which the message of the gospel was first introduced. In my reading I was pointed back to Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. He stresses the significance the medium plays in the communication process. We readily understand that the incarnation story is the opening scene to the dramatic arc of redemption that God orchestrated in order to provide salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. My focus for this year has been to consider the medium that carried the message. I invite you to join me in this discovery as we look at the context of the incarnation story. Often our focus is strictly placed on the content of the message of redemption that came through the narrative of the gospel. We read the story and listen to the word of announcement of the Saviour being born. We hear the voices of the shepherds in disbelief and the fulfillment of prophesy spoken through Simeon. To look at the package that carried the message of redemption should give us a least as strong a message as the content itself.
The people of Israel were eager with anticipation for the Messiah to come and deliver them from the years of oppression of foreign rulers. The scriptures clearly pointed to the coming King that would deliver the people. I just imagine the speculation that happened over every noble child that was born. Would this be the one? If the tabloids had been around to publish their magazines, I can just imagine the crowd of paparazzi that would have chased any child who showed signs of power and prestige. Nobody paid any attention to the pregnancy of a young woman in Nazareth. This was the cultural climate that awaited the advent of Immanuel.
It would be wonderful if the gospel message of the Incarnation was simple. Not for a lack of trying however, we try to reduce the gospel of message down into something that can easily fit into a greeting card. The reality is that when we consider the context of the story, what is revealed is a level of complexity that doesn’t fit into nice, neat packages. It is necessary to understand the multiple paradoxes that are present within the story. I find it intriguing that the birth of the “King of the Jews” takes place not in a palace, but in the stable of an inn. The king has a humble beginning, consistent with the humiliating death that awaits him. Remember that the King being born in a stable was not a mistake, but something intentional which speaks to the humanity that accompanied this heavenly king as well as identification with the common Israelite who was under the governance of the Roman emperor. The humble beginning of Jesus’ life speaks to the humility that is an integral part of the gospel message. In order for us to understand our need for Jesus Christ as a Saviour we must be humbled out of our own sense of self-sufficiency and given over to the authority of God Almighty. When we understand the humility, we respond in humility.
Another paradox present in the Immanuel story is contained in the announcement of the birth. It is triumphant and celestial yet spoken to the humble and lowly shepherds. Imagine the impact of a holy other event happening to a group of commoners who were working the graveyard shift looking after stupid sheep. It begs the question, why was this splendour wasted on the uneducated and insignificant shepherds? Certainly, they couldn’t appreciate the magnitude of this announcement when compared to the scholars situated a few miles away in Jerusalem. Yet this seeming contradiction demonstrates the magnitude of the event while illustrating those who will be most receptive to the message contained in the story.
The magi provide another question. Why would it take visitors studying the movement of the stars to recognize the significance of the event and alert the authorities about the arrival of the King of the Jews? It is remarkable that it was foreigners who recognized the significance of the event, while locally the news of a birth taking place in Bethlehem seemed to not reach even the interest of local officials. It gives me the confidence that even in the Christmas story we already have a glimpse of the global reach of this redemption plan that is being enacted. It also compels me to consider how this message is being communicated around the world.
So how does this affect our actions? I would suggest that we look at how God has chosen to enact redemption and in turn we seek to follow God’s lead. The gospel is best packaged not when we reduce the gospel down to one idea, or some cozy greeting this Christmas, but rather when we live our lives mired in the muck and mire of the problems faced in this world. Perhaps I can find people who are longing for a Redeemer and in so doing find the needed sense of expectancy. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the way in which we worship during this time of year. Our worship should reflect a type of longing and expectancy that comes when we do not yet see the full completion of God’s redemption in this world. There are plenty of situations locally and globally which ought to create that sense of longing.
During this Advent time the challenge that I give to myself and extend to you is to consider the packaging we use to communicate the message of Christmas. Is the extravagance of the message matched with humility? Do the events, services, and rituals that we cherish at this time of year communicate to those watching a message consistent with the Good News of Christmas? Perhaps we need to take the gospel message into the stables of our towns and cities. No doubt there are people there who are desperately looking for the message.
Patrick Friesen spent many years as a professor at Steinbach Bible College teaching worship studies. Since leaving the college in 2020 he has continued to explore the intersection between faith and our worship practices. He spends his time working as a consultant, and taking photos that tell stories. You can see more of his work at patrickfriesen.ca.