December 22, 1992
Every culture around the world indicates life changes with activities called rites of passage. For instance, while some cultures simply rub the newborn with salt, we celebrate childbirth with gift giving and baby showers. We also send our children out on that important first day of school and mark the end of their formal education, again with gifts and ceremonies. We have initiation rites for new positions of employment and retirement parties, and more gifts, at their end. The last passage is marked the same way throughout the world — by funerals.
Christmas calls to remembrance one particular rite of passage, a celebration of one moment in history when the Son of God left a solid, secure home at the request of His Father and entered this world in the same way we did, as a helpless baby. Babies are dismayed by birth; the womb is warm, dark, safe and comfortable but the world is cold, very bright, dangerous and discomfiting. For Jesus, there was an added shock; before developing in a human body in Mary’s womb, He had lived in heaven.
Even though we know very little about heaven, we can be certain it is a perfect place to live where no one ever feels alienated. There, the Son of God and reigned over all creation and shared the glory of His Father, but this earth did not greet Him with angelic worship or welcome the brightness of His presence. Instead, just prior to His birth, His earthly parents were compelled to go to Bethlehem only to find when they arrived there were NO VACANCY signs all over town. The only space left for Jesus to be born was a stable and He, who had been accustomed to heaven’s incense of prayer and praise, was introduced to the world amid the smells of manure and the noises of bleating sheep. Some celebration!
Besides no room in the inns of Bethlehem, there were no formal birth announcements, no cards to family and friends from a proud new mom and dad, and no baby shower. His Father did send a host of angels with a singing announcement, but it was heard only by a few simple shepherds. Some wise men eventually arrived bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh, beautiful yet not particularly useful gifts for a young toddler.
From birth on, Jesus’ rites of passage were never quite normal. When He was thirty years old, He was baptized and ordained into ministry but in the first rite, a voice came from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” and after the second one, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to fast 40 days and be tempted by the devil.
Later, as He began to minister to people, Jesus was dismayed even more by sin and death’s power to destroy lives. Shortly after weeping at a friend’s funeral, He faced the full reality of that power Himself when the sin of the world, sin He did not commit, was placed on Him. After He paid its awful price, He Himself experienced that last solemn ritual.
But wait, there were two more rites. One came after three days when He rose from the dead. The next occurred a few days later after He told His disciples to go and tell the world what happened and said goodbye; before their eyes, He ascended into heaven.
As we remember this Babe who endured the shock of birth and celebrate it by giving one another gifts, remember He also tasted the horror of death — so He could celebrate by giving us the gift of life.