Summary: The full significance of the Incarnation is only seen when its dark side is understood - in the Sign of a Sword to Mary’s heart, the Symbol of Myrrh as an offering from the wise men and the Sorrow of Rachael over her dead children.
If the message of the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus into human experience, had to be condensed into a single sentence it couldn’t be bettered than the words of John: "He came to his own home and his own people received him not" (1:11). In the opening verses of his Gospel, John had already written that Jesus was the Light that shines in the darkness of the world and yet, unbelievably, "the world knew Him not."
The Christmas story, if it could be portrayed on a great canvas across the front of the church, would be full of contrasts. There would be the blinding light of the angelic hosts filling the night sky over the Bethlehem fields; there would be the focused light of that strange moving star that led the Wise Men to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem. And yet woven into this wonderful story of the Incarnation there’s a darker side of poverty, suspicion and murder.
As we obey the Lord’s command to partake of the Communion this Christmas we rejoice in what the Lord Jesus did for us at Calvary. We should also remember that Calvary is foreshadowed in the Incarnation. It’s true to say that the shadow of the Cross darkened the stable in which Jesus was born, and fell across the manger in which he was cradled. The darker side of Christmas doesn’t sit too comfortably with the popular image but, of course, neither does the Cross. The Incarnation foreshadows the Cross and to understate this aspect is to distort the truth, to detract from the full meaning. To be a true Christian is to know the truth of the Gospel; to absorb it into our understanding and to work it out in our daily living and lifestyle and to share it with others.
For a picture to be true it must be composed of light and shade, the bright and also the dark colours. The joyful news of the advent of the Redeemer, Emmanuel, God with us, must be balanced by his virtual rejection apart from a few shepherds and the neglect of the religious establishment and the outright hostility of the government. Things haven’t changed much today. Public opinion polls report that very few regard Christmas as a Christian festival; most people think it is an excuse for a knees up!
The way of the world is to portray Christmas as a great sentimental occasion, vastly overdone as a festival, so that its real meaning is so encrusted with tradition, wrapped up in half- truths of peace and goodwill. The result is that the truth of the gospel, is lost. The Incarnation is reduced to a "sugary" Christmas, just a season of the year to have a good time and be generous. It’s a perfect opportunity for the marketing men to have a field day in making money by persuading people to spend money on what they can’t afford and to over indulge on what they don’t need. What a travesty of the truth! It’s to the first Christmas that we have to go to find the real meaning.
Let’s try to forget the tinsel and colour lights, the canned music of the carols in the High Street, and get back to the reality of the Biblical account, to some of the neglected aspects. Some of it isn’t very nice because it focuses on suffering and death itself, and it points to the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it’s what the Christians of the early Church would have recognised as the truth.
I’m told there’s a picture painted of the boy Jesus greeting the dawn. He is shown with his arms open but the rising sun throws a shadow behind him - the shadow has the shape of a cross. The artist must have been a discerning person for he recognises a real truth - that the road to the Cross begins at Bethlehem. This will be apparent as we explore the significance of some of the lesser-mentioned incidents of the Christmas story. First, we consider:
THE SIGN OF A SWORD
When Jesus was being presented as a baby in the temple at Jerusalem, the devout and aged Simeon was inspired to say to Mary: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against … the thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own heart too" (Luke 2:34,35).
Jesus, the Word made flesh, had to enter human life at a particular point in history and as a member of a particular race and nation. Preparation for his coming had been going on for centuries. The Old Testament prophets had anticipated his coming in very direct prophecy. You would have thought that when the Word eventually became incarnate among that people in fulfilment of the promises made, he would have been welcomed as one who was entering his home. Sadly, that was not to be. Israel was in a very special sense God’s own possession but listen to this complaint that Isaiah lays against her: "Hear, 0 heavens, and give ear, 0 earth; for the Lord has spoken, Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand" (1:2,3).