46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]
There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.
It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.
Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?
Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]
So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?
We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.
This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.
While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.
Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.
In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.
But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.
How do you respond to birth of God’s son?
Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.
The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.
The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.
Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.