This is the mystery of the incarnation. Though we may try, no one has been able to completely understand how God could become a human being. It is beyond human comprehension, but it is true nonetheless. Pope John Paul II described this event in sacramental terms, with Jesus being the "Sacrament of the Invisible God -- a sacrament that indicates presence. God is with us. God, infinitely perfect, is not only with man, but he Himself became a man in Jesus Christ" [John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 7]. If Jesus is the sacrament of the invisible God, then in his life and work we see the invisible God revealed. This is what Christmas is all about.
Matthew doesn't tell us anything about stables or shepherds. We must turn to Luke to find these details. Matthew does, however, show us how scandalous this birth really was. Joseph was on the verge of putting his wife away, since they were not yet married and she was pregnant. This isn't they way you would expect God to reveal himself. Even if God didn't choose to make a grand entrance, you would at least expect him not to cause a scandal. Yet, as William Willimon points out, "when God is with us, God is not with us in placid, nondisruptive ways. God's intrusions among us cause consternation and difficulty" [ William Willimon, "Unto Us a Child," in Pulpit Resource, 26 (Oct., Nov., Dec. 1998): 47.] Yes, this was a most unusual birth, but it was a birth that changed history.
If we find the question of how God could become a human being perplexing, we find the question of why even more so. Why was all of this necessary? Scripture tells us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but couldn't God have found a different way? Perhaps there could have been a different way, though theologians haven't yet discovered it. So, this is the way God chose to bring us into fellowship, beginning in a small town in Judea and ending on a cross outside Jerusalem. Despite our lack of answers if we look closely at Jesus and his life, we begin to have a new understanding of the nature of God. Songwriter and poet, Michael Card, writes:
He is no longer the calm and benevolent observer in the sky, the kindly old caricature with the beard. His image becomes that of Jesus, who wept and laughed, who fasted and feasted, and who above all, was fully present to those he loved. He was there with them. He is here with us. [Michael Card, "Immanuel," in Calvin Miller, ed. The Book of Jesus, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 242.]
Yes, in Jesus, God is with us. At the end of Matthew, as Jesus prepares to depart from the gathered disciples, he makes it clear that despite his departure from them physically, he will always be with them.
Mary and Joseph named the child Jesus, not Emmanuel. The name Emmanuel, however, provides a significant commentary on the person of Jesus. The two names, Jesus, which means "Yahweh Saves," and Emmanuel, which means "God With Us," remind us that God is with us to save us, to make us whole, and to heal the breach between us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
When God's Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily took on, out of pure grace, our being, our nature, ourselves. This was the eternal counsel of the triune God. Now we are in him. Where he is, there we are too, in the Incarnation, on the Cross, and in his Resurrection. We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Life Together," in Miller, Book of Jesus, 199.
As we go forth into the night, let us go forth knowing that God is with us. God has visited us and we will never be alone again.
Note: This reflection was taken from a Christmas Eve homily given December 24, 1998, my first Christmas Eve as pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara.