Thursday, December 22, 2011

“Santa Baby” and Baby Jesus #2

A gigantic leap is required from the simple request for “two front teeth” as all I want for Christmas to the list of what “Santa Baby” should supply. The “Santa Baby” list includes: a sable (coat), a light blur convertible, a yacht, the deed to a platinum mine, a duplex, signed checks, Christmas decorations bought at Tiffany’s, and a ring (“I don’t mean phone”). If that is not a classic expression of the materialism that has infected Christmas, I don’t know what would be.

Consider the contrast with the actual day of Jesus’ birth. Luke 2 is the classic source for the humble circumstances that surrounded the birth of the Christ-child. The popular “no-room-in-the-inn” scenario depicted by Luke shifts the focus, not to a stable (which is not mentioned in the biblical text), but to a “manger,” a feedbox, a trough for fodder, or a feeding place for animals (note references to “manger” associated with the birth in v. 7, with the angelic sign in v. 12, and with the shepherd’s encounter in v. 16).

No cave or stable or barn is referenced in the text, and the assumption of such often has been drawn from there being “no room for them in the inn” (v. 7, KJV). Actually the word translated “inn” more likely referenced a “guest room” (the other two uses of the Greek word in the New Testament are found in Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 and denote guest rooms) and the word translated “room” (in “no room in the inn”) is the Greek word topos, which actually means “place.” The guest room’s space was filled, or it was so occupied as to make it an inappropriate place for childbirth. Exactly where Jesus was born is not stated in the text. The focus is on where the child was laid after being wrapped in strips of cloth after the Oriental custom. We have romanticized the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, making those circumstances even better than they likely were. Such a humble beginning for a “king” seems incredible, unless we perceive an incredible alignment of God’s interests with the poor, the humble, and the meek.

We know almost nothing about Joseph and Mary’s financial situation. As a skilled craftsman, Joseph probably made a respectable living. The unexpected pregnancy probably made the travel to Bethlehem for the census/taxation a welcomed opportunity to escape the gossip and slander that Mary might have faced in Nazareth. Still, we know nothing about how Joseph and Mary financed their trip; and when it was extended, no clue is given to how they supported themselves in Bethlehem. Matthew’s Gospel does give us several clues. Mary and Joseph evidently found ongoing housing in Bethlehem because, when the Magi found them, they were residing in a house (Matt. 2:11). Evidently Joseph and his family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Based on the information gained from the Magi, Herod ordered the killing of all male children who were two years and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem (v. 16)—implying the possibility that Mary and Joseph remained in Bethlehem for an extended time after the census/taxation. Then, warned by an angel, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt and remained there until Herod’s death. We know nothing about how Joseph supported his family during this time, unless we view the providential gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Magi as the resource that allowed them to live through the Herod threat (v.11).

The “Santa Baby” materialism seems more appropriate for the court of King Herod or the academy of the Magi, but it doesn’t fit the humble manger scene with itinerant shepherds giving witness to a humble birth. God’s provision of housing, resources for escaping Herod’s threat, and eventually establishing residence again in Nazareth keeps the focus pretty much on the basic necessities of life. And that presents the dilemma (or maybe “predicament” would be a better word to describe our situations, for “dilemma” implies two unfavorable alternatives): How will we deal with the blatant materialism that hovers over all we do at Christmastime? From the lavish gifts we give and receive, to the lavish decorations we display in our homes and our churches, we glorify the season so that a humble manger hardly has its place in it all. And the letting go of the extravagance of a heavenly throne for a manger-bed cannot be fully sensed when we exploit the gaudy and miss the “emptying” of an equality with God that took the form of a slave and was born in human likeness and humbled in human form (Philippians 2:6-7). Can we turn from the extravagant toward the mere wish of a “merry Christmas” that counters our materialism with the “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . humbled himself” (Phil. 2:5-8).

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