Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A Christmas Reflection for Ordinary People
By Roy Clouser
December 22, 2014
Perhaps it’s a sign of my age, but every year I find the Christmas story more emotionally powerful than the year before. To be sure, its celebration has been grossly commercialized, cheapened by over- decoration, slickly packaged for movies and TV, and even declared illegal in government buildings. And it’s often been badly eclipsed by the charming nineteenth-century fairy story a New England father wrote for his children about Saint Nicholas. But, at least so far, it hasn’t been completely stifled. Just when it seems about to be replaced by its own trappings, the real story shines through again: a section of The Messiah on the radio, the words of a carol in a shopping mall, a picture on a greeting card, or Linus’s moving recital of Luke 2 in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
What has struck me recently harder than ever before is how the central characters of the story are such absolutely ordinary folk going about their everyday lives, and how its message is still for ordinary folk today going about their everyday lives. We now think of Mary and Joseph as famous, but to their friends and relatives, they were no different from thousands of other pious Jews awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The baby Jesus looked and behaved like any other newborn. His birth in a stable and his parents having to use a manger for a crib show how far they were from being celebrities.
Think for a moment of just how poor that birth really was. There was no one there to bathe the baby, no fire, and no light. The mother was her own midwife, and cold straw the baby’s only bed. In one of his Christmas sermons, Martin Luther commented on that scene this way:
Who showed the poor girl what to do? She had never had a baby before… She was flesh and blood, and must have felt miserable – and Joseph too – that she was left this way, all alone, with no one to help, in a strange land…
But lest we be too taken up with the circumstances of his birth, Luther then redirects our attention to the Christ child:
I would not have you contemplate the deity of Christ, the majesty of Christ, but rather his flesh. Look upon the baby Jesus. Divinity may terrify man. Inexpressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.*
To be sure, Jesus’s birth was a miracle. But at the time, only Mary and Joseph knew that. The only other thing that was out of the ordinary was the appearance of angels to announce it. And look where they went to do it. They didn’t go to Rome to talk with the emperor or to Jerusalem to discuss theology with the chief priest. They didn’t appear to the loyal Jewish underground seeking to overthrow oppressive Roman rule or to historians to make sure all was recorded properly. Instead they went to a few average Joe blue-collar workers who’d pulled the night shift on a Judean hillside – men who are not even named in the story.
By having the angels declare the Great Gift from heaven in this way, God shows us just what he thinks of human power, fame, wealth, pomp, and wisdom. He says, in effect, that since his gift is to all people, it just won’t matter which ones he picks to be the representative recipients of his birth announcement.
Every year I feel more like a shepherd.
- Roy Clouser is Professor Emeritus of The College of New Jersey and a former Trustee of the Center for Public Justice.
* The Martin Luther Christmas Book, trans. Roland Bainton (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1948) pp. 39, 40.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”