A King born in a container  

20 Dec 2020

By Nathan Marshall 

When I detangle the tinsel, hang the baubles, wrap a few presents, and eat too much plum pudding, it still amazes me that what’s hiding under the stuff of this season is a baby wrapped in a manger.

A king born in a container; the only place left for the underage mum and her overdue delivery. Hardly a royal welcome. “From the crystal courts of heaven to the fly-blown stable floor, this is a different kind of glory – Jesus, jewel of the poor.”[1] Scoundrel shepherds are visited by angels, Magi astrologers interpret the signs. “A star will rise from Jacob; a sceptre will emerge from Israel” (Numbers 24:17). Every time I attempt to put the birth of Christ in the neat and tidy box, complete with Nan’s crocheted blanket and placed under the Christmas tree, I minimise what is truly a scandalous event. This gift is anything but contained!

Simeon’s words illuminate the way of Yahweh: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, but he will be a joy to many others. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him” (Luke 2:34). Christmas has perhaps grown … predictable. Instead of the expectancy of the Advent season, I find myself wondering if the ‘Grinch’ really could steal Christmas?! Perhaps it’s just me, but even after the unexpectant COVID year, I’m still left feeling somewhat … unexpectant. I read my common prayer liturgy alone. I wonder what I should buy for my children. I try to source some Christmas cheer but I’m not sure I can face another end-of-year lunch! But Simeon’s words ring out. ‘This child’ is different. ‘This child’ is unpredictable. ‘This child’ will interrupt and confuse and cause division and elicit wonder and threaten the status quo.

What child causes the puppet king, Herod, to request the whereabouts of this ‘King of the Jews’ from the Magi so he can pay a visit? What child elicits the extermination of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem? What child is destined to free his people “… the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor”? “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:4-6). This is hardly a story of a baby who ‘no crying he makes’. Buechner invites us into the stable: “The odour of the hay was sweet, and the cattle’s breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the King.”[2]

“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be upon his shoulders.” – this sends shivers down my spine every time I read Isaiah. A king born in a container, but he is uncontained. A gift wrapped in a manger, but a star is birthed to announce his arrival! “O Word, now wrapped in human skin.”[3] God writes himself into the story and disrupts all our preconceived notions of deity. The Word “… came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognise him.” (John 1:10) With ‘Jingle Bells’ in the air and online shopping delivering to my door, I wonder if I would have or could now recognise this King? Would I have stared aghast and amazed as heaven’s armies sang ‘Gloria in Excelsis’ in the sky? Would I have discerned not only the star in the sky, but the promise attached to such a sign? Would I have recognised, like Simeon, that this blessing was not some feel-good fairy tale to make life easier, but a reverence that gave him the courage to speak the truth of Christ’s subversive mission to plunder hell and redeem all of creation?

Christmas lunch may be growing a little tired. Perhaps the spirit of the season has become consumed by consumerism. Perhaps we have bought into an idea that’s found wanting. But this a story about the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, who “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:7). This King is uncontainable. I pray that our container would be broken once again this Christmas.

[1] Steward Henderson, Jesus, Jewel of the Poor (From Good News to the Poor by Tim Chester)

[2] Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (Harper, NY, 2006)

[3] Clainborne/Wilson-Hartgrove/Okoro, Common Prayer (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2010)