The Nativity scene is everywhere. We see baby Jesus camped out in yards in nativity scenes cast in stone, wood, plastic, or even inflated rubber. Some of our home brewed cultural additions can crowd or even cramp this simple story of Jesus’ birth, but there is more going on this season than flying reindeer, Frosty the snowman, or Bing singing White Christmas. It isn’t about Will Ferrell’s 8 pound 6 ounce golden-diapered creation who never cried, but that is at least a nod in the right direction.
What makes this birth worth celebrating is not just the simple story of a young mother conceiving a child. It is not angels, shepherds, wise men, frankincense, or even a young mother’s harrowing donkey ride during the last weeks of her first pregnancy. These are a part of the story but they are not the real story. What makes this special is the miracle of all miracles, the incarnation: that the King of the Universe became a fragile baby cared for by regular people like us. That the Word became flesh and made His tent (lit. tabernacle) among us. The Nativity scene reminds us that in a sense, God went native. He entered into time and space in a little town called Bethlehem. Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. How fitting that this tiny town now housed the Bread of Life! Not only did God step down from the most exalted throne, He stepped into human flesh like ours and was laid down in food trough in a smelly barn.
God loved us so much He went native. He made Himself like us so that we could become like Him. He did not come as a Hercules figure who looked down his nose at us in our weakness. He came as a scandalous new addition to a family in small backwater town. He knew scorn, hard work and oppression. He was taxed into poverty, displaced as a refugee from a genocide campaign, and heck, probably smashed His finger with a hammer and cursed a little now and then. But He came as a baby as helpless as a lamb. This single event revealed more of the heart of God than all the Scriptures put together. This proclaimed to the world not only that Jesus was like God, but that God was like Jesus. He came on an all out rescue mission for us that began—among us at least—in the tired arms of a teenage mother.
Many songs have sought to capture this miracle in verse, but few hint much at the theological magnitude of the moment these days. YHWH, the God on whom no one looked without risking death was now revealed to the world. The image of the invisible was made visible for the people of God to touch and see and follow around Galilee! Some hymns pluck at the theology of how Jesus could be fully God and fully human simultaneously, but most simply move through the mystery of the incarnation directly into doxalogical praise. This has been the case since the earliest days of the church as song writers like St. Ephrem the Syrian struggled to put into words the glory of what had taken place on Christmas Day:
Glory to Your coming that restored humankind to life.
Glory to that One Who came to us by His First-born.
Glory to that Silent One Who spoke by means of His Voice.
Glory to that Sublime One Who was seen by means of His Voice.
Glory to that Sublime One Who was seen by means of His Dawn.
Glory to the Spiritual One Who was well-pleased
that His Child should become a body so that through Him His power might be felt
and the bodies of His kindred might live again.
Glory to that Hidden One Whose Child was revealed.
Glory to that Living One Whose Son became a mortal.
Glory to that Great One Whose Son descended and became small.
Glory to that Great One Who fashioned Him,
the Image of His greatness and Form for His hiddenness.
With the eye and the mind–with both of them we saw Him.
Glory to that Hidden One Who even to the mind
is utterly imperceptible to those who investigate Him.
But by His grace through His humanity
a nature never before fathomed is now perceived.
 St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th C), “Hymns On the Nativity”
Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, pages 83-84
Classics of Western Spirituality