This post comes from Jamie Arpin-Ricci is an urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer living in Winnipeg’s inner city West End neighbourhood. He is planter & pastor of Little Flowers Community, a new missional church plant in the inner city of Winnipeg. Jamie is also forming Chiara House, a new monastic community. He is a third order Franciscan with The Company of Jesus. He made full professional in October 2009. He is founding co-director of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Urban Ministries Winnipeg with his wife Kim.
The Christmas season stirs in us all kinds of sounds, images and memories. For me, one of the longest held is the picture of Sunday School kids in bathrobes with towels on their heads acting out the Christmas story. Angel proclaiming His birth to the shepherds, the wise men presenting their priceless gift and the gentle baby Jesus lying silently in his bed of hay in a quaint and perfect manger. A narrator would read the story out loud from the script as parents and grandparents diligence recorded the whole thing on film and video to be watched again later. Yet one aspect of the story often gets glossed over. Sure, it might get a quick reference in narration, but I have never seen it meaningfully engaged or even remotely attempted to be acted out. Which scene am I referring to? The massacre of the Jewish babies under Herod’s command. Definitely not family friendly!
And yet, Matthew’s Gospel does not shy away from such details. This gruesome details refuses to let us settle comfortably into the nostalgia of the season, confronting us with the brutality of humanity that accompanied the incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus Christ. We acknowledge it, but quickly move past it, for fear it might sully this otherwise joyous story. As I consider the celebrations of the Jewish people to whom Jesus was born I cannot help but notice how they have unwaveringly embraced the suffering and brokenness of their story as essential to their identity. Why then are we so quick to sanitize the story of the Advent of Christ?
Matthew knew that this story would stir in the hearts of his Jewish readers a memory of a similar story in their history: the birth of Moses. Just as the kingship of Jesus, proclaimed by the angels and validated by the Magi, threatened the powers that be, in the same way the Egyptians sought to eliminate the threat of God’s chosen people. And just as Moses rose up to lead his people out of captivity into the Promised Land, so too Jesus would rise up and lead all of creation out of the bondage of sin and death. Just as Moses give up the privilege of his royal Egyptian upbringing, so too did Jesus condescend to take upon Himself humanity for our salvation. And just as the story of Moses is hugely formative to the Old Testament identity of God’s people, so too must we recognize these events at the birth of Christ as even more formative to our identity as His Church.
However, Jesus’ tale differs from Moses’. Moses led the people to the Promised Land where they re-established as a free and independent people, a nation. Yet when Jesus came as the King of Kings, He chose to dis-empower Himself and emerge among the least of these. Where an emperor would have sent his heralds to “proclaim the good tidings of great joy” of his new position of god-king over the empire, Jesus sent His angelic heralds to proclaim it to simple peasant shepherds. While born of the line of David, He was also born through circumstances that cast Him illegitimate, as virtually unclean among His people. And where Moses led his people into the liberty from pagan Egypt of the Promised Land where they established as a nation, Jesus fled His own people and land to seek refuge in Egypt, a foreshadow of universality of His salvation for all nations.
So while we must certainly celebrate the joyous season of Advent, we must learn to live in the tension that the coming of Christ was such a threat to the powers that be that it was inaugurated in the shed blood of innocent children. We must always temper our celebration with the mournful and cautious conviction that as Christ truly incarnates through us, His Body, His Church, we will pose an equal threat to the powers that be. And like Jesus, instead of seeking to sidle up to those powers to curry favour, instead we must follow Christ as He proclaims Himself to the least of these, the poor, the simple and the broken. Through this foolish and weak community, the wise and the powerful will be confounded as His kingdom breaks forth in our hearts and in our lives.