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Friday, 23 December 2016

Surprising Contrasts in the Nativity Story

   The well-known details of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem are repeated in the carols that are played through sound systems in shopping malls and sung in churches during Advent.  We know of mangers, and shepherds and wise men and a star they followed.  It's familiar and comfortable to many of us. I'd like to point out some surprising contrasts in the nativity story that might help make it fresh and new for you this Christmas.
1)  The first contrast is the sign the shepherds were given.
   When the shepherds were told to look for a child, they were given two things to look for: the babe would be wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.  We imagine Jesus' birth taking place at a cold time of year if we live in the West, so it would be obvious to us that a newborn be clothed.  However, what we know of Mary and Joseph is that they were poor.  Not all Hebrew parents could afford clothing for their babies. Yet somehow, clothing was provided for their son so that he could "wrapped snugly in strips of cloth," as the New Living Translation puts it.  The shepherds would have heard these two descriptions of the baby and wondered at the contrast.  If the child was clothed (indicating a level of wealth), why would he also be in the feeding trough for animals?  When the shepherds found baby Jesus, the story they spread about a newborn well dressed but kept in an animal's feeding box would have caused their listeners to marvel as well.  What would become of a child like this? One who had attributes of wealth and humility at once?
2) The second contrast is in the reactions of King Herod and the Magi
   King Herod's palace was not far from Bethlehem, about 3 miles away.  In fact, Bible teacher Ray VanderLaan points out that Bethlehem was literally in the shadow of the sizable building called the Herodian, one of Herod's palaces [1].  The child Jesus was born close to the man who ruled as king, but went unnoticed by him until "Magi from the East" came to Jerusalem asking for one born "King of the Jews." Some Christmas songs have led us to think that these men were "kings," but they were educated people (sages, familiar with the stars).  The Chinese word used for the Magi is the same word that is used for "professors."  These learned men from the East probably came from Persia or modern-day Iran.  The sheer distance they were willing to travel in order to honour a royal child contrasts sharply with the short distance Herod sent his soldiers to try to destroy a royal child.
3)  The third contrast lies in the three gifts the Magi brought
   The gospel writer Matthew tells that the gifts the Magi brought were gold, frankincense and myrrh. In our modern day, the value of just one of these gifts is readily apparent.  We know that gold is a commodity of great worth and that it does not deteriorate the way some other metals do.  But what of frankincense and myrrh? Incense was used in the Jewish temple as a form of worship; its aroma represented the prayers of the people rising up to God; however, the Magi may not have known of this specific aspect of Judaism.  Myrrh was an oil used in embalming the bodies of those who died. Could it be that this gift of myrrh hints at the final purpose of Jesus' birth: that he would die for the sins of the world?  These distinct gifts were all high in value, yet the gift of myrrh seems to highlight something of Jesus' mission in a way that the other gifts do not.

I encourage you to look deeper into the Nativity story yourself and look for other surprising elements and contrasts.  Imagine you are reading it for the very first time, and it will never get old.

[1] Article by Ray Vanderlaan https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/in-the-shadow-of-herod-article

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