We don’t normally think of being nervous about meeting the Christ-child, even though he is the King of all the world. Perhaps it’s due to the unfortunate accident that “child” rhymes with “mild,” and conditions the tone taken by so many Christmas hymns. The Christmas baby is described as “tender and mild” (Silent Night); laying down his “sweet head” in a manger and not ever crying (Away in a Manger); a “gentle Lamb” in whose hands I am (Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild). All happiness. All peaceful. Christmas cards with sweet scenes of folded hands, radiant beams, admiring angels, gentle lambs and nuzzling oxen, a revering Mary and Joseph.
But there is another way to look at the Nativity.
There were some people who were not so eager to welcome the Christ child into the world. When the three kings from the Orient arrived in Jerusalem, they asked Herod about some newborn king of the Jews. And “when King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled” (Matt 2:3). The extent of his troubled spirit is commemorated three days later, on December 28, although most of us have already moved on to think of New Year’s Eve. It is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. When Herod realizes “that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under” (Matt 2:16).
If this were a fairy tale, you might imagine a nasty king going to extremes to protect himself from Christmas. He might command all Christmas cards burned, or fir trees in a 50-mile radius cut down so no one can put up a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, real life can be even harsher than fairy tales, and real kings can be grimmer than the Brothers Grimm ever imagined. Jeremiah had prophesied: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children” (Matt 2:18).
This resistance to Christ led G. K. Chesterton to imagine the first Christmas in a different light. Chesterton (1874–1936) was an English writer, novelist, philosopher, and convert to Catholicism, which he defended in a number of books. One of those books was a history of the interaction of God with the human race, titled Everlasting Man, and was the very book that Lewis said paved the way to his own conversion to Christianity. In it, Chesterton describes the first Christmas as if the high King had to come undercover.
Jesus’s birth was literally an underground affair, because around Bethlehem shelters for animals (stables) were dug into the hillside as caves. So Chesterton imagines the “very horse-hoofs of Herod passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ.…There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt the earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.”
God was being smuggled into his own creation! The first Christmas was in stealth, worthy of an adventure tale. “The rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw’s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out.” The High King was sneaking under dark of night into his own Kingdom, and Herod did not like it.
On the surface, the Christ child seems harmless, but he has come to befriend the poor and helpless, and that makes him a threat to the rich and selfish. Christmas upsets the mighty who mistakenly think they possess their wealth or power for their own self-gratification. Actually, the gifts they have are only on loan to them. Their wealth and power is intended to be put in service to the high King, who has commanded them used in a preferential option for the poor. And now, at Christmas, the high King was coming to balance the books. That is why Herod and the Roman Empire eventually put him to death. The rumor that the Messiah is afoot worried them, and the rumor may still cause consternation to many today.
Perhaps we do not take the Incarnation seriously enough because no real demands are made on us by the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Perhaps our faith needs to be stirred up by a more powerful figure than we see on many of our Christmas cards. Perhaps He will ask us, too, whether we have been acting in justice.
So the Christmas story combines two characteristics of God. There is the power and might of the Son of God, which threatens the selfish and corrupt rulers of this world. But there is also mercy, which we see in the undignified position the high King takes in order to enter his world. It is a mercy that we learn from those very pictures of the manger, which Chesterton says combine two ideas that are remote: “the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.” After anyone has glimpsed the Nativity scene, “there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.”
Just how low will God go? To an underground cave at His birth; to the underground realm of Hades after His death on a cross. Christmas is where justice and mercy kiss.