This is the season for celebrating the birth of a baby boy, whose miracles and teachings were destined to surpass anyone in human history born either before or since. The global calendar is centred around the event of his entry to planet Earth, and many of his teachings and sayings are firmly rooted in popular culture. The world is divided between those who claim to experience a personal and intimate relationship with him, and those who merely pay him lip service or deny his existence altogether. Some commentaries about the life of Jesus reveal more about writer’s agendas than add to the picture already supplied by the primary literary perspectives we call the four gospels.
As Jesus was conceived during the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, calculating 15 months forward from Zechariah’s temple duty as described in the book of Chronicles, places the timing of his birth not in December but in the fall, during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. The word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us. It is possible he was born in a temporary shelter, a “sukkah”, for there was no room at the local motel, and furthermore — as described in the Mishnaiac Jewish tradition — in the same fields used to graze animals kept for the temple sacrifice. The men to whom the angels appeared were therefore no ordinary shepherds, but temple employees. The angel’s announcement to them of a sign was to be the unusual sight of a human baby wrapped in cloths in an animal stall, just as they themselves would have treated and certified one of their newborn Passover lambs. The significance of this find would not be lost on them.
A baby’s birth is a time to celebrate new life; however, in Jesus’ case it is striking how many allusions to his future death were voiced or implied. The gifts of the wise men, quite possibly Jews themselves (each representing one of Israel’s scattered tribes), were a peculiar medley to give a newborn baby: gold to announce royalty, incense to declare mediating prayer, and myrrh to describe the Spirit’s anointing, which rested upon him. These men understood these gifts as vital ingredients of the tabernacle and temple, whose singular function was to facilitate blood atonement for sins. Indeed, it was the wise men’s knowledge of an ancient biblical prophecy, which predicted that a “star will come out of Jacob,” that captured their attention. The belief in astrology rests on the premise that the position of the stars influences our life here on Earth; however, in this story it was the position of the baby that influenced the star.
Zechariah, Simeon and Anna all spoke of Jesus’ future redemptive destiny; his name meant “God who saves”. Simeon even warned Jesus’ mother Maryam that a day would come when her heart would be emotionally pierced — she would witness the horrific piercing of her son’s physical heart. How the memory of that prophecy from the old man may have brought a modicum of comfort; there was such divine purpose in all the pain.
When Jesus talked about his birth, his usual comment was not, “I was born,” but, “I came.” The implication being that He chose to be born. His life did not begin with His birth, nor did it end with his death.
It is tempting for us to remember Jesus in this season and hold in our minds the mental image of his weakness and vulnerability as a newborn child; however, this does not do justice to the whole story. His birth was surrounded by circumstances, objects and words concerning His priestly life mission. Thirty-three and a half years later, he was killed. Whereas the picture of the lamb at birth exquisitely represents his dependence and innocence, the animal killed at Passover was not a lamb but a one-year-old ram sacrificed in the prime of life. Jacob’s prophecy over his son Judah described a future descendant who would be called the “Lion of Judah”. Animals that typified Christ, from a ram to a bull, from a lion to a heifer, from an eagle to a gazelle, speak of innocence, yes, but of weakness, no. He was in the prime of life and easily able to resist capture, trial or death by his wisdom, knowledge or power, but instead as Isaiah predicted “as a sheep before its shearers is silent, he did not open his mouth.”
Jesus’ birth can and should be celebrated (Tabernacles is the only Jewish feast to which all nations are invited to actively participate in); he likely celebrated it himself with a party of five others on the Mount of Transfiguration. However, we must not be tempted to confine our lasting image of him to a powerless baby. He is a king whose name is above all names, whose kingdom and government will have no end. His personage is the kindest and safest in the universe, but he is also as dangerous and as free as one of the wild animals that He created.
The Chronicles of Narnia are a masterful allegory of the gospel story, where C.S. Lewis used a lion called Aslan as the figure to personify Christ. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan and Mr Beaver are conversing:
“Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”