It was a cold winter morning. Cold for Arizona. When I awoke and looked out the window a low blanket of gray clouds hovered just above the still-waking city. Cold, and delectably happy in my winter hat and galoshes, I went outside to pull the sheets off the lemon trees. They alone had been protected from the glistening frost, which clung now like thin panes of glass to the rosemary and salvia, the winter lettuces and Lamb’s Ear which huddled together like lost children trying to keep warm. Relishing the sight of my breath, I thudded clumsily up the stairs, entered the chilly living room and flipped on the gas fire. The girls filled the house with Christmas music while I heated hot chocolate on the stove; we used wooden skewers to roast marshmallows on the open flame, and pressed them between two squares of graham cracker. Then we sprawled out on the rug and played puzzles all morning long.
By noon the frost had melted; the canopy of clouds had burned off and the sun shone high in a sky that was empty of everything save a few lingering clouds.
The girls became restless… so we put on our winter coats and trekked down to the zoo.
Twin topiaries, tied with red ribbon, proudly flanked the entrance to the park. Inside, all the trees were dripping with colored lights and Christmas garlands. Several Greek houses, the fire department and the local library, had decorated certain sections of the grounds in honor of their favorite charities – even the local origami club had filled an eight-foot fir with ostriches, monkeys, and giraffes, each intricately folded out of colored paper.
We wound over wooden bridges and paved walkways, hesitating now and then to admire the decorations. But it wasn’t until we arrived at the very last section of the zoo, beside a pen of black pigs, tucked under a low awning, that I saw them: countless paper ornaments, quavering in the breeze like so many autumn leaves: A Savior is Born! they announced: Glory to God in the Highest! The grandeur of the message was thrown into high relief by the fact that each ornament had clearly been made by a child. Shepherds with wooden staffs crouched beside rudely colored wise men, all of them focused attentively toward the contents of a clumsily drawn manger, from which a tiny head and two infant feet poked out.
I looked at the pigs – black, dirty, rasping things – and wondered to think that the greatest master artist, the One who painted the sky with all its colors, who spoke the stars into place, and whose very Word set the planets spinning into orbit – this God, whose power knows no limit, made Himself “an infant small” and came into the world on a bed of old straw, to a stable full of dirty, grunting animals (Blake, On Another’s Sorrow).
There, beside the pigpen, I broke down and began to cry. This, I realized - this pronouncement that God has come to be with us - was the news I had been longing to hear; the news of which I never tire of being reminded: “A Savior is born in Bethlehem!” “The virgin has brought forth a son, whose name is Jesus, for He shall save his people from their sins!” It is the only really good news that has ever come to mankind – without which I have only cause to despair.
He did not command an orchestral greeting when He came. Did not – as would have been right – thunder through the clouds in a chariot leading throngs of angels, and an army, strong. The mountains and the hills did not break forth in song; the trees did not clap their hands. Neither did the stones cry out in worship. Instead, as Sally Lloyd-Jones’s describes, “the earth held its breath. As silent as snow falling, he came in. And when no one was looking, in the darkness, he came” (The Jesus Storybook Bible).
The all-powerful, omniscient, and everywhere present God willfully constrained His powers and became part of the order which He Himself created, and which He sustains by the Word of His power. At the moment of His birth, the infinite became - for the first time to human eyes - something finite. Think of it! In the weeks before Christmas, our pastor made a great point of this, challenging his audience to consider the truly astonishing fact that “the God who begot all things became anything.”
Yet He did. He became a man. Limited by time and space, with flesh and bones, a beard, perhaps, and warm breath flowing in and out of his lungs; a man who was hungry and thirsty and who grew up, like any child, to learn things – a language and culture, for example, and the craft of carpentry.
Misunderstood by His family; cast out by His home town; in turns celebrated and rejected by the masses; betrayed by His closest friends. This Jesus, “with nothing in his physical appearance to recommend Him,” came to earth, and for one reason only: “…He came to save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1.21).
This is the miracle we celebrate each Christmas… And without Jesus the gifts that we give, and the gifts we receive, are no gifts at all - without Him, they are like little doses of elixir with a great inebriating power to blunt all our faculties of self-reflection and convince us that, in fact, we have all we need without Jesus.
I shudder at the thought.