The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.John 1:14
In love Jesus left His throne, in the realm of heaven, to reveal himself to us so that as mere humans we could understand who God is, what He is like, and how much He loves us. The natural, ordinary environment of a family was chosen as His earthly dwelling place. Entrusting himself to the loving arms of a mother, under the protective care of a father—both of them making sacrifices for one another and for Him. Christmas is a story of sacrifice: Joseph’s sacrifice for Mary’s sake, Mary’s sacrifice for Jesus’ sake, and ultimately Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake. Without these sacrifices Christmas, and our world, would look different.
Imagine if Joseph had not been willing to put aside his own pride and suspicions to take Mary as his wife. Well within his rights as her betrothed husband, he could have exposed her to public shame. Guilty of the offence of adultery, her punishment would have been death by stoning. Harsh by today’s standards, but it was a defensible punishment under the laws at that time. Since Mary had traveled to meet her cousin Elisabeth, and stayed with her for over three months, no one would have thought Joseph to be the father, but rather a duped man who was left with the burden to raise the child of a wayward wife. Being a “just man,” he could have “put her away privately,” freeing himself from the obligation to provide for and protect her. He could have moved on with his life. One could argue that Joseph had the benefit of an angel’s message. God confirmed the truth of Mary’s story, but it still took faith and obedience to move forward. We can find several examples of less than faithful responses to angelic visits in Scripture. Joseph’s behavior demonstrates his response. He took Mary as his wife and performed the role of husband to her and all that this implies. He fulfilled the duty of father to Jesus, yet he was not His father. Joseph did the hard work without the human satisfaction of seeing himself emerge in Jesus, to see some predominant facial feature appear as He matured. It is ironic that Joseph raised the One in whose image he was created.
Imagine if Mary had not been willing to accept the paradoxical honor of bearing the Messiah. A home, family, and children would have been her natural aspiration, but in the normal course of events. God’s offer twisted everything up. Could she set aside her fears and accept the offer of bearing a child that was not her husband’s to risk the punishment for adultery? Could she provide shelter and food for the child if Joseph put her away privately? Could she willingly enter a situation with many unanswered questions to take on a life full of shame and sadness? Yet she embraced the irresistible idea that she among all women, of all times, had been chosen. But who would believe her? Others had not the evidence of an angelic visitation. Gabriel himself spoke to her, and he was the same angel who spoke to the prophet Daniel about the coming Messiah some 500 years earlier. How could a young girl’s heart hold the enormity of it all? Nevertheless, her thankful voice continues to echo in the Magnificat each night at Evening Prayer, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (BCP 26). By demonstrating simple obedience in the face of numerous risks she consents: “Be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
The sacrifices of Mary and Joseph are inspiring, yet reflecting on the sacrifice of the last member in the Holy Family causes pause. This is a horrific thought, but imagine if Christ had not been willing to sacrifice for us. Yes, we would be granted, ultimately, the promise of eternal life through His death, but can we possibly imagine life devoid of His daily promises? No healings performed in His name, no comfort of His presence in difficulties, no weekly strength received at the altar, no community shared as His Church? We would be lost, slaves to our own selfish desires and lusts, or worse the oppression of others. No hope, no direction, nothing good or lovely to hold on to, nothing greater than ourselves. God would remain a mystery to us, a Spirit, whose love we could never fully experience or return. Overwhelming thoughts.
The pattern of sacrifice in the Incarnation provokes me to examine my own life. I hear the words of St. Paul to new Christians in Rome: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2). Do not be conformed to this world. A difficult task when the very tone of the society I live in screams for personal satisfaction. People are encouraged to do what is best for them, and they are honored even if they trample all over the lives around them. How then do we as Christians break this trend? An easy trend too, it is exceedingly more satisfying to serve oneself than to put the needs of others first. How to begin? I think it starts with my willingness to let go of my desires and begin seeking God’s. Where does God want me to make sacrifices? How do I make sacrifices for others when I am uncertain or afraid or just plain don’t feel like it? I think my part is to respond to His example of selflessness and behave as a “living sacrifice” regardless of my feelings. I’m to take stock of the fact that He has things for me to do, things that don’t involve my ego or my rights, but things that allow Him to work His will in, through, and around me. Aren’t all Christians agents for His goals and purposes on earth? The Christmas story is one of mutual sacrifice, working in harmony for a greater good, indeed for all involved. The effect of this harmony has far-reaching consequences, just as our disobedience does.
The most recent season of my life has been filled with opportunities for sacrifice. (Opportunity might be a gracious word.) Honestly, I have faced a myriad of troubling decisions. Ones where I could have chosen to go against what I know God was asking me to do. Some monumental, some less consequential, but sacrifices nonetheless. I have learned that God, although concerned for my sadness and confusion, still expects me to do what is right. It is that simple call to obedience: turning the ear of my heart to God, asking Him to show me what is best for those in my life, and then doing whatever part I am able to do. I want to sing out with Mary, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” but my anthem ends on a different tone, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” for I cannot do this on my own strength or wisdom. If I do, I run the risk of becoming a martyr or worse, a doormat. A delicate balance must be achieved. Yet, God promises to be near the humble while also warning that He resists the proud. So, with His help, I can humbly do my best, and set the stage for His provision and blessings to flow. Then I can experience the promise of Psalm 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!”
Although steeped in quaint, childhood images of a star, barn animals, and the sweetness of a newborn baby, the Christmas story has a potent message for me today. As I attempt to follow His selfless example and make sacrifices for others, I wait in anticipation not only of His glorious second coming but expectation of the daily fulfillment of His promises to provide for me. Those provisions might not be the things I want, but I can be sure they are the things that I need. As I learn about God’s love through Christ’s sacrifice, others may be able to learn about Christ’s love through my sacrifice. Not an easy message, but I am encouraged by the example of the Holy Family, the earthly dwelling place of my Lord.