I (Helen) write this post from a room decorated for Christmas. There are white twinkle lights, wreaths of evergreen with pine cones, cranberries and plaid ribbons, and vases of ornaments strategically placed around the room. But it just doesn’t feel like Christmas. I’ve heard Christmas music over the speakers in stores and when we went for fish tacos on Saturday, but I’m writing from Baja California, Mexico, and the weather is 20 degrees Celsius. For me, it seems, the “feeling” of Christmas requires cold weather, a certain amount of baking, feverishly hand-making gifts, and wishing we had winter tires. All of these are impossibilities at the moment. Next week when we return to Turner Valley, we’ll be immersed in winter, I’ll bake to my heart’s content, and we’ll finally get winter tires (yay!), but right now, Christmas seems far away, even though December is almost a third underway.
I know Christmas is more than the decorations, the music, the gifts, and the food. Though the traditions and memories of Christmas are wrapped up in these things for me, the beauty of Christmas means that whether I’m in Baja California, Mexico, or Turner Valley, Alberta, a Savior was born over 2000 years ago, and the effects of that birth echo throughout history past and future.
In early November, Michael and I had the opportunity to teach the Gospel of Luke in Ensenada, Mexico. It was a brief overview teaching of the book, as we only had six hours to cover it, including translation. I taught on the historical background of the Gospels, equipping the students to understand the difference between Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jews’ expectation of their long-awaited Messiah, the climate of the Roman empire. But I also had the opportunity to teach Luke 1-4, the portion of Luke which outlines Jesus’ birth and preparation for ministry.
Luke begins with a word to his original audience – Theophilus – and tells the reader he is writing “an orderly account” that Theophilus “may have certainty concerning the things [he has] been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). The purpose of the Gospel of Luke is to show Theophilus a) who Jesus is, and b) who the Kingdom of God is for. We see this throughout Luke, as the Kingdom of God is constantly discussed, as is Jesus’ identity as the Son of Man who has come “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), but we also see this in the first few chapters of the Gospel, in the lead up to Jesus’ birth, the events surrounding the coming of Messiah, and in the days after the Savior was born.
In the very next paragraph (Luke 1:5-7), we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple described as righteous before God, walking blamelessly. “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (Luke 1:7). At this point in history, barrenness was a disaster for a family. It meant a shaky future, little security for the elderly, and it raised serious questions. Barrenness was associated with being under a curse; it was associated with having been removed from the favor of God. Zechariah and Elizabeth would be outcasts in their society, looked down upon and of questionable character. But this wasn’t the end of their story. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” said the angel, “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord…he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hears of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:13-15, 17). After years of being cast aside by their society, Elizabeth and Zechariah would be part of the greatest story that ever was. Their son would herald the birth of Messiah.
Six months later, another angel was sent. This time the recipient of that angel was Mary. Mary would have been a teenage girl, likely no older than fourteen. She wasn’t wealthy or important. Her future husband, Joseph, wasn’t wealthy or important either. “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!…you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:28, 31-33). Luke tells Mary’s side of the story – a side of the story that wouldn’t typically be considered at that point in history. Women were considered insignificant. And a poor pregnant teenage girl, claiming to be a virgin? A scandal, a story to be swept under the rug, to be sure. But Luke recounts Mary’s humble response, “I am the servant of the Lord” (1:38). When the time came for her to give birth, her child was born amongst animals. The King of kings born not in a palace, but in the dark, damp dwelling of four-legged creatures. Later, when the time came to present Jesus to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph would offer a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons, the provisional sacrifice allowed for those who could not afford to give a lamb (Luke 2:22-24).
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” An angel visited them too: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11). No little boy in Israel grew up hoping to be a shepherd. Shepherds were smelly outcasts, on the fringes of society. But shepherds were the first to learn of the birth of the Messiah. They were the first to find Mary and Joseph and Jesus. They were the first (besides the angels) to proclaim the birth of the Lord.
Luke is filled with stories of the last, lost, and least. Jesus healed many of them. He taught many of them. He showed them their value by engaging them in a world that ignored or rejected them. But even before Jesus was born, God was using a childless couple in His story. God used a poor young woman to bring Him into the world. His birth was proclaimed to outcasts. Luke highlights these stories because His intention is to show Theophilus that Jesus is for everyone. The Kingdom of God is for everyone. Any who accept their need for Christ are welcomed into the Kingdom.
While it might not “feel” like Christmas in Mexico, and while I might long for all the sights and sounds of the traditions I am accustomed to, the truth of Christmas is that 2000+ years ago, God put on flesh and dwelt among us, born to die to set us free from death and sin. As the angel told the shepherds, Jesus is “good news of great joy…for all the people.” That is a reason to celebrate, whether you celebrate in sun, snow, or rain, with family or with friends, near or far from where you spent your first Christmases, with gifts opened Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. Jesus is good news of great joy, for all the people.