Maybe God was up to something. You decide . . .
An angel appeared to an old priest serving in the silence of the temple sanctuary. The angel told Zechariah his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, and that son would prepare the people for Messiah’s coming. The priest was shocked by the angel’s appearance and his message. He wanted a sign. Instead, the angel struck him dumb for disbelief (Luke 1:5-23).
Soon, barren Elizabeth conceived (Luke 1:24,25).
In her sixth month, another angel-visit. This one to a young virgin in Nazareth, Galilee, who was pledged to marry a descendant of King David, Joseph. “The Holy Spirit will conceive the Messiah in you.”
After a while, Mary went south to Judea to visit her relative Elizabeth. Nothing unusual about that. Except when Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s baby jumped in her womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me” (Luke 1:26-45). Important note: this being before phones, e-mail and social media, Elizabeth knew nothing about the angel’s visit to Mary.
Suddenly, Mary magnified the Lord, with a beautiful poem of praise by which she affirmed her belief that the Lord had looked on her with favor, would upset the world’s power structures with her child, and would help Abraham’s descendant as he’d promised (Luke 1:39-56).
Elizabeth gave birth. A son. Eight days later neighbors gathered for the circumcision and naming. “John,” she said. (Apparently, Zechariah had written to Elizabeth the name the angel wanted.) Neighbors protested. “Name him after his father!” Then “dumb” dad wrote it again with an exclamation point: “His name is John!” The note loosed the old priest’s tongue to tell the whole story. The neighborhood buzzed with a question: “What will this child become?”
Suddenly, Zechariah answered. “The Lord God of Israel is remembering his holy covenant with Abraham. John will become a prophet of the Most High. He’ll go before the Lord to prepare his ways so his people will know the way of salvation.”
Things settled down after that. The child grew. Years wound by. Until John was a young man. Then he went off to live in the wilderness (Luke 1:57-80).
Then, in far-off Rome, Caesar Augustus issued a decree. The emperor’s whole world had to travel to ancestral homes to register. (More taxes were coming.) For Joseph in Nazareth, that meant an arduous hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary.
Finally arriving in the little town, Mary atop a donkey groaned, “Joseph, it’s time!” But they had no shelter—no room in the inn crowded with travelers. Joseph frantically rushed to find a cave. A haven for farm animals became a temporary home for the baby’s birth, and a straw-strewn animal trough became his bed (Luke 2:1-7).
Outside town, shepherds were tending their flocks at night. Time and place for another angel-visit. This one momentous. “Don’t be afraid, the angel told the afraid shepherds. I’ve got good news of great joy for everyone. Today in David’s town a Savior has been born—the Messiah. You’ll find him wrapped in cloth-bands lying in a manger.” At that, a majestic choir of angels appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the heavenly display ended and shepherds closed their hanging jaws, they found their tongues. “Let’s go see. Whaddaya say?” So they did and saw. There was the child in the manger and mom and dad hovering nearby.
On the eighth day, he was circumcised and named: “Jesus.” That was the angel’s idea (Luke 2:8-20).
* * *
Now: was all this God up to something? Or maybe Zechariah got caught up in spiritual ecstasy about an angel at the incense altar and Mary was just daydreaming as young girls are wont to do. Maybe Elizabeth wasn’t really barren after all, and she and Zechariah just “got it right.” Maybe Joseph and Mary were just, you know, “fooling around” and things got out of hand and well, you know. Perhaps those shepherds had just spent too many nights out in the field tending dumb sheep and a group hallucination struck them.
Or maybe the whole thing is just a fairy tale that’s persisted over the centuries–part of the Christmas tradition as unreal as Santa Claus.
Or maybe God was behind the whole thing.
If you decide that it was God, you can have a really Merry Christmas. That’s what Lois and I wish for you.