(This Communion Meditation originally appeared in our issue from December 26, 2004.)
By Lee Magness
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Galatians 4:4, 5).
The scene is a sparse hill in ancient Judea, not far from Jerusalem. Nearby is a cave. Jesus wears one meager garment. Mary watches, wondering what it all means. A man stands by, not the father of Jesus, but the one who will care for her. Beneath Jesus are beams of rough wood. Above, the heavens sparkle with supernatural splendor. In the city sits Herod, pondering Jesus’ death. Jewish leaders discuss his coming. Nearby are outcasts, giving their own crude testimony. Soon the rich arrive with gifts, better for burial than for birth.
What did you picture? A birth or a death? A crèche or a cross?
The hill could be a sheep-studded hill near Bethlehem, or the hill called Golgotha. The cave could be a stable crudely cut into one of Bethlehem’s hills or a burial vault recently carved in a nearby cemetery. The garment could be swaddling clothes or a bloody, ragged loincloth.
It is Jesus of course, but is he a newborn baby or a dying man? And it is Mary, but is she sitting at a cradle comforting her baby or is she crouching, crying, and in need of comfort? Is the man Joseph the carpenter or John, who will make her a home? Are the wooden beams a manger or a cross? Are they eyeing a cold, clear star or an eclipsed sun and a blood-red moon.
The Herod could be “the Great,” who tried to kill the baby, or his son, who in a sense succeeded. The outcasts could be shepherds, kneeling on either side, or subversives, hanging on either side. The rich men could be magi who offer exorbitant gifts or Nicodemus and Joseph who offer only an empty tomb.
There’s a mirror in the manger, a birth reflecting a death. So there is no better way to celebrate Christmas than to keep Communion.
God, thank you for sending your Son, to be born, to live, to die, and to live again. We celebrate him this day and pray in his name, Amen.
Lee Magness, former Vera Britton Chair of Bible/professor of Bible at Milligan College in Tennessee, retired in spring 2013 after 30 years in the classroom.