Christmas is God’s great affirmation that people matter. It is His dramatic commitment to the last, the least, and the lost. It is the amazing manifestation of His unshakable love for the unloved and the unlovely, the weak and the base, the unworthy and the unwarranted, the rebels and the sinners. The incarnation is God’s grace made evident and obvious: people matter; life is sacred; men, women, and children are worth the greatest sacrifice, the supreme effort, the ultimate gift. Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. This is the essence of Christmas!
He who is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing laid it all aside, “making Himself nothing, being born in the likeness of men.” Though the Wise Men of the East, offer the babe in the manger tokens of all that was rightfully His, others were already plotting to rob Him of that power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. Even as the Magi acknowledged that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, having seen His glory, Herod was conspiring to snuff out that great light. According to the Gospel of John, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1: 9-11).
This sad truth is driven home to us with inescapable clarity in the Gospel immediately following the story of the Nativity. Notice how Matthew masterfully tells this tale--he takes us from laughter to tears; he takes us from the sublime beauty of the manger scene to the tawdry ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man; from the sheer joy of angels in the realms of glory to the utter despondency of sinful man’s perversity, violence, and decadence. The first thing we see after Christmas is why Christmas was necessary in the first place.
The second chapter of Matthew's Gospel is actually the B-side of the Christmas story--or perhaps better, page two of the story--and serves as its essential context. It is "the rest of the story." This page two perspective affords us five different scenes:
In vs. 1-6, the Magi arrive from the East, and the priests and scribes inform Herod that the Messiah would indeed be born in Bethlehem. In vs. 7-12, the Magi do homage, then being warned, return home another way. In vs. 13-15, Joseph too is warned, and he takes Mary and Jesus away to safety. In vs. 16-18, Herod, realizing he has been tricked, kills all the boys of Bethlehem--a horrific genocide akin to anything Hitler or Pol Pot or Mao or Stalin or Sanger or Saddam ever perpetrated. Finally, in vs. 19-23, after the death of Herod, the holy family returns to Galilee.
Each of these five scenes vividly illustrates the depths of man’s depravity; the strong vocabulary emphasizes the wretched estate of sin: v. 3 describes Herod as "troubled," or literally, “profligately mad;” v. 7 says Herod "summoned the Magi secretly," or more literally, he “skulked, conspired, and plotted in the dark;” v. 13 says Herod "sought to destroy" the Christ child; the word used here is particularly gruesome, meaning to “smother or to slaughter;” v. 16 says Herod became "furious;" the word here is thomoo, literally “enraged.” Herod was consumed with a mad, cruel, destructive rage and as a result his murderous heart led him to commit horrific genocide, a wholesale slaughter of the innocents. But even after Herod died, the mad violent bent of man continued--vs. 20 and 22--for “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death.”
But notice too that each of these five scenes is anchored by an Old Testament prophecy: v. 6 is from Micah 5:2; v. 11 is from Psalm 72:10; v. 15 is from Hosea 11:1; v. 18 is from Jere. 31:15; and v. 23 is from Isaiah 11:1. It is as if Matthew is assuring us that as horrific as things appear, events are not spinning out of control; God’s redemptive purposes cannot be frustrated--not even by the most evil schemes of men; the worst that man can do is no match for the best that God can do.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow as far as the curse is found.
The implications of this passage are stunning. Here is what "page two" of the Christmas story teaches us:
Man’s conniving, plotting, and scheming will always be frustrated—because God is God and man is not. However much we may covet power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing, only God is worthy to receive these things. Thus, we are forced to face the futility of our vain ambitions. And this infuriates us. Witness the rage of Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad; witness the same rage of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings; witness the same rage of a two-year-old pitching a tantrum in his playpen. It is the rage native to all of us. It leads all of us toward destruction, for ultimately, we are all Herod-of-heart.
The first inclination of our wrath is death and destruction. Sadly, because all men without exception are sinners, the most fundamental factor in understanding anthropology is the thanatos factor. Very simply, what that means is that all men have morbidly embraced death (Rom. 5:12). At the Fall, mankind was suddenly destined for death (Jere. 15:2). We were all at that moment bound into a covenant with death (Isa. 28:15). Whether we know it or not, we have chosen death (Jere. 8:3). It has become our shepherd (Ps. 49:14). Our minds are fixed on it (Rom. 8:6), our hearts pursue it (Prov. 21:6), and our flesh is ruled by it (Rom. 8:2). We dance to its cadences (Prov. 2:18) and descend to its chambers (Prov. 7:27). The fact is, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:10-18). And “all those who hate God, love death” (Prov. 8:36). Since the dawning of time, men have contrived ingenious diversions to satisfy their fallen passions. We still do.
Abortion, infanticide, suicide bombing, genocide, terrorism, and euthanasia are not new dilemmas. Indeed, they have been a universal blight on every human society from the beginning of time. None of the great minds of the ancient world--from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca and Quintilian, from Herodotus and Thucidides to Plutarch and Euripides--disparaged child-killing or mercy-killing or convenience-killing in any way. In fact, most of them actually recommended it. They callously discussed its various methods and procedures. They casually debated its sundry legal ramifications. They blithely tossed lives like dice.
The wholesale slaughter of the unwanted was so much a part of ancient human societies that it provided the primary literary liet motif in popular traditions, stories, myths, and legends. The founding of Rome was, for instance, presumed to be the result of the abandonment of children. According to the story, a vestal virgin who had been raped bore twin sons, Romulus and Remus. The harsh Etruscan monarch Amulius ordered them exposed on the Tiber River. Left in a basket which floated ashore, they were found by a she wolf and suckled by her. Later, a shepherd discovered them and took them home to his wife and the kindly couple brought them up as their own. Romulus and Remus would later establish the city of Rome on the seven hills near the place of their rescue. Oedipus was presumed to be an abandoned child who was also found by a shepherd and later rose to greatness. Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, was supposedly a survivor of infanticide. According to Homer's legend, Paris, whose amorous indiscretions started the Trojan War, was also a victim of abandonment. Telephus, the king of Mysia and Ion, ruler of the Gracians, had both been exposed as children according to various folk tales. Zeus, chief god of the Olympian pantheon, himself had been abandoned as a child. He in turn exposed his twin sons. And so the story goes.
Because they had been mired by the minions of sin and death, it was as natural as the spring rains for the men and women of antiquity to kill the innocents. It was as instinctive as the autumn harvest for them to summarily sabotage their own heritage. It was woven into the very fabric of their culture. They believed that it was completely justifiable. They believed that it was just and good and right. But they were wrong. Dreadfully wrong. And that is why Christmas is such a stunning answer to all of who are Herod-of-heart.
Life is God's gift. It is His gracious endowment upon the created order. It flows forth in generative fruitfulness. The earth is literally teeming with life (Gen. 1:20; Lev. 11:10; 22:5; Deut. 14:9). And the crowning glory of this sacred teeming is man himself (Gen. 1:26-30; Psalm 8:1-9). To violate the sanctity of this magnificent endowment is to fly in the face of all that is holy, just, and true (Jere. 8:1-17; Rom. 8:6). To violate the sanctity of life is to invite judgment, retribution, and anathema (Deut. 30:19-20). It is to solicit devastation, imprecatation, and destruction (Jere. 21:8-10). "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, whatsoever a man sows, that he shall also reap" (Gal. 6:7).
But the Lord God, who is the giver of life (Acts 17:25), the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), the defender of life (Psalm 27:1), the prince of life (Acts 3:15), and the restorer of life (Ruth 4:15), did not leave men to languish hopelessly in the clutches of sin and death. He not only sent us the message of life (Acts 5:20) and the words of life (John 6:68), He sent us the light of life as well (John 8:12). He sent us His only begotten Son--the life of the world (John 6:51)--to break the bonds of death (1 Cor. 15:54-56). Jesus "tasted death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9), actually "abolishing death" for our sakes (2 Tim. 1:10) and offering us new life (John 5:21). “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
One of the earliest Christian documents--actually predating portions of the New Testament--asserts that “There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death.” In Christ, God has afforded us the opportunity to choose between those two ways--to choose between fruitful and teeming life on the one hand, and barren and impoverished death on the other (Deut. 30:19). Apart from Christ it is not possible to escape the snares of sin and death (Col. 2:13). On the other hand: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). All those who hate Christ "love death" (Prov. 8:36); while all those who receive Christ are made the sweet savor of life (2 Cor. 2:16).
Death has cast its dark shadow across the whole of human relations. Because of sin, all men flirt and flaunt shamelessly in the face of its spector. Sadly, such impudence has led to the most grotesque concupiscence imaginable: the slaughter of the innocents. Blinded by the glare from the nefarious and insidious angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), we stand by, paralyzed and mesmerized. Thanks be to God, there is a way of escape from these bonds of destruction. In Christ, there is hope. In Him there is life--both temporal and eternal. In Him there is liberty and justice. In Him there is an antidote to the thanatos factor. In Him, and in Him alone, there is an answer to the ages long dilemma of the dominion of death.
Light of light descendeth from realms of endless day, and the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away!
That is the rest of the story--the essential page two. Christmas has a context of genocide, of merderous rage, of man's inhumanity to man, and of hope nonetheless. And that makes the manger all the more beautiful!