I think we get Jesus confused with Peter Pan. We seem to think he is the boy who would not grow up.
A seven-year-old girl went with her grandparents to look at Christmas displays in the suburb where they lived. When they saw a large Nativity scene, Grandma called attention to it: “Look, Sarah, isn’t it beautiful?” And Sarah, who was a very smart girl, said: “Grandma, one thing bothers me. Jesus is the same size he was last year. Why doesn’t he ever grow up?”
Perhaps Jesus does not grow up because we won’t let him. We love the baby Jesus. He is so sweet, sitting on his mother’s lap, like he is in Leonardo’s painting, stretching out a tiny hand to his admirers. It is all so charming – and entirely innocuous. What could be less threatening than a little baby – particularly one that never grows up?
But leaving Jesus at Bethlehem on Christmas Day is like leaving WWII at Normandy on D-Day, or manned flight at Kitty-hawk on a December day in 1903. It is important to celebrate the act that set it all in motion, but there is so much more to the story. Interestingly, Christians did not think to celebrate Christ’s birth until about the fifth century, but for many contemporary westerners, Christmas is the only Christian holiday they celebrate.
At Christmas, we stand over the manger – we are comfortable there – and sing about the Child who is proof of God’s love for the world. But at some point we need to move away from the manger. We need to let this Baby become a man and hear what he says and see what he does. The story of Jesus moves on; it leaves Bethlehem behind. The place of his birth is referred to only one other time in the rest of the New Testament, in a conversation by people who didn’t know that Jesus was born there.
We can choose to frame the events of Christmas so that they comprise a stand-alone story – a fascinating one, to be sure – but there is more to the story than that. It is the story of the infiltration and invasion of earth. The Infiltrator comes from outside our world. The Invader comes to wrest the earth from the dark powers that control it
Christmas is an invasion. St. Paul wrote: “In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son…” The word translated “sent forth” has the primary meaning “to send on a mission.” Jesus is not Peter Pan. If we think of him as a boy who did not grow up, we underestimate him. He is an invader, and he is on a mission.
History has its stories of famous spies and infiltrators: Nathan Hale, Mata Hari, Alger Hiss, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. They infiltrated armies and state departments and intelligence communities. But there has never been an infiltration on the scale of “Operation Bethlehem,” which required the infiltration of our race, even our biological make-up, through the Virgin’s womb.
Bethlehem was ground zero for an invasion, a strategic move in an age-old war. But the story does not end there any more than the story of WWII ends at Normandy. We must move away from the manger to see the King of Kings and not just the newborn king.
Even at Christmas – especially at Christmas – it is necessary to look beyond the manger to the stark and terrible cross. And beyond it to the shattered and empty grave. The rescue mission has extended far beyond Bethlehem.
And it is not over. Ordinary people are being taken up into the fray, joining the side of the new king. They announce pardon to people who have disregarded him as they once did. They extend peace.
The operation began with the daring invasion at Bethlehem but the tide was turned at Calvary. Today, the mission continues in Cleveland and New Orleans, Chicago and New York, Kolkata and Beijing – wherever God’s people find themselves. Christmas deserves to be celebrated not as a sweet story for children but as the first strike in the continuing mission to rescue the world.
(First published by Gannet.)