It is advent. Time to look forward to the sweet, sleeping baby Jesus born is a stable. The song “Away in a Manger” would have us believe that a newborn baby did not even cry. Well, if Jesus didn’t cry, Mary did.
This was a terrifying birth! Away from her family, Mary was giving birth for the first time on the bottom floor of a Bethlehem home instead of in the upstairs guestroom already stuffed with Joseph’s other relatives. I like to think the relatives arrived first and squeezed themselves in to the room to at least give Mary some room to give birth. We do not know if she had women she trusted to guide her through the process. We do know that childbirth is an inherently dangerous prospect, and scary and bewildering for those who have not experienced it before.
Even after the delivery, the holy family was not safe. Rough, dirty shepherds visited shortly after Jesus’ birth. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they probably stunk. When my son was born last year, I did not even want our family to come into the room, because I was so zealous to preserve to quiet rest of my wife and baby and ensure that no one brought in any noise or contamination to our space.
We do not know much about what Joseph did around the time of Jesus’ birth. We do know that not too long after, he led the holy family in emigrating to Egypt to escape the slaughter of babies around his son’s age.
This is a terrible birth story: A suspicious pregnancy which would have opened Mary to prosecution for adultery since she was already engaged; travel mandated by an occupying empire just before the time of birth; an unfamiliar site for the birth; dirty, noisy shepherds visiting the baby [shepherds who were probably either girls, or the sons with the least prestige, as in the examples of Jacob’s, Jesse’s and Jethro’s children]; and then hurried emigration to escape murderous calibrators with the foreign occupier.
I feel annoyed by Christmas pageants that try to smooth over the terror of it all and make it cute. Whatever else it was, the advent of our savior was not cute. It was terrifying!
I appreciate this year’s advent readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, because they help us understand a bit of the terror inherent in the Son of God coming into this world. Aside from all the scary human situations, God entering this plane of existence is terrifying. It is not without reason that when angels appeared to humans in the Biblical text, their first words were usually, “Do not fear!”
If the messengers were terrifying, how much more so the Great King? In the midst of begging God to come down, this week’s passage in Isaiah 61 points out that God being present will mean the mountains shaking, the nations being as boiled water over a flame, and those who are sinful – all of us – having no recourse unless God forgets our sins and saves us from being blown away like dead, dried leaves (Isa 61:1-9). This is an altogether frightening picture. And although the passage begs God to come and aid the people, the writer knows that an appearance by God will shake the very foundations of the earth as well as the conscience of every human who will be instantly conscious of her and his sinfulness in the presence of our Holy God.
The gospel passage from Mark only furthers the point. When Jesus returns to judge, save and fulfill all righteousness, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from the sky (Mark 13:24-25). This will be the terrifying manifestation of God’s power through Jesus. And as powerful as Jesus is, he reminds his hearers – us – that even he does not know the time of his second coming, but only the Father (13:32).
As we prepare, once again, to remember Jesus’ birth and look forward to his advent in this place, we need to remember that it is not just an ordinary baby who we welcome. The Jesus we look to is the one through whom the world was created (John 1:3, Col 1:16). The power that made volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, as well as supernovas and black holes was born to a woman in a terrifying situation.
But as terrifying as problematic, unsanitary births; occupying armies; murderous kings and strange visitors are, what was born that day in Bethlehem was even more unsettling. The Prince of Heaven willingly entered our time and our space. The power of God in Jesus is enough to overcome the world (John 16:33). As we look forward to Jesus’ advent, let us allow and experience a bit of the healthy fear of the one whose coming not only portends God’s saving mission, but also whose very presence shakes the mountains.