The Ultimate Christmas Card

cards-Nativity-Scene

Do we think of our Creator a creative type?

If we were playing Family Feud under the category of Creative Type, I’m pretty sure the survey would come up with answers like: absent-minded, clever, quirky, fun to be with, hard to marry, occasionally genius . . . not exactly the kind of answers that would come up under the category of Sovereign God.

Let’s be honest, most popular theologians have earned their voice by being a Type A personality. These are people with doctorates, people that have established a platform by building churches or starting organizations. It’s no wonder their perception of God tends to mirror their own values.

I think we need to develop another lens in our biblical interpretation. If we want to understand the creative expressions of God, shouldn’t we explore the thought processes of our most talented artists? How do they see the world? How do they express themselves?

Check out this quote from “Story,” by Robert McKee:

Symbolism is very compelling. Like images in our dreams, it invades the unconscious mind and touches us deeply—as long as we’re unaware of its presence. If, in a heavy-handed way, we label images as “symbolic,” their effect is destroyed. But if they are slipped quietly, gradually, and unassumingly into the telling, they move us profoundly.

If there was ever a moment for God to inject subtle symbolism into a story, it would have to be the Incarnation. All we have to do is look at a Christmas Card and we can see the nature and mission of Christ, as long as we think like an artist.

STAR:

It was a star that signaled the coming of the Messiah, a star that drew the wise men to look for him. A star is a light in the heavens, which is appropriate, considering this person is coming from heaven and claiming to be the Light of the World.

A discussion of light and darkness is not a discussion of good and evil, but truth and ignorance. Jesus said that men stumble because they walk in darkness, listening to the Father of Lies. Sin is not a result of some evil gene, but a natural result of ignorance. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Truth came to an ignorant world. That’s why God said, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”

SHEPHERDS:

There were no wise men in Bethlehem. The angelic announcement came to shepherds. Why shepherds? What could possibly be accomplished by having some local shepherds come and look at a baby? Did they do anything after that?

Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd. He is the divine caretaker of his flock, providing, protecting and guiding. Putting shepherds at the manger only adds to the symbolic advertisement of Christ’s benevolent nature and mission.

MANGER:

Why a manger? Why not a bed, like everyone else? On the surface, we would automatically think of a manger birth as an act of divine humility, but thinking as an artist, we would have to consider the presentation. A manger is food trough. From an animal’s perspective, Jesus was born and immediately placed on a dinner plate. Why the association with food?

Jesus said, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” He claimed to be the Bread of Life, the true Bread from Heaven. The people had a hard time thinking of a man as food and stopped listening, though I suspect the Donner Party would have probably stuck around to hear more.

If we think artistically, we can understand that Jesus is not speaking literally. Food does for the body what Christ does for our spirits. We are nourished. We are strengthened. In essence, we are what we eat.

So we look at a Christmas Card and see three key elements: The Light of the World, the Good Shepherd and the Bread of Life, all benefits of an estranged creation reunited with its Creator.

BONUS ROUND: THE GIFTS OF THE WISE MEN

Three gifts? That should immediately get our attention, just like the three years of Christ’s ministry, the three crosses, or the three days in the grave. Think of the number three as God’s signature.

A simple biblegateway search will show that a majority of references to gold, frankincense and myrrh come during the description of the tabernacle in Exodus. The Holy Place had three key objects—the lampstand, table of showbread and altar of incense. All were coated in gold. In fact, everything you could see from floor to ceiling was gold. The key ingredient to the oil that anointed all the holy objects was myrrh, and the key ingredient in the incense on the altar was frankincense, generating a white smoke. Basically, if you stepped into the Holy Place, your senses would be assaulted by gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Jesus was staring at the temple when he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He must have associated himself with the building. He gravitated toward it, even as a child. He taught there. He kicked the moneychangers out. That was where the sacrifices were made. That was where people met with God.

Appropriate, considering his name: Emmanuel. God with Us.

14 thoughts on “The Ultimate Christmas Card

  1. So….. a big discussion ensued in my Sunday School class over how Mary must have felt when the angel told her that she was going to give birth to the Son of God via the Holy Spirit. I waited three weeks as the discussion seemed to return each week to how as a human she must have been freaked out and scared to death. First week I said, “read the Magnificate” she tells you how she felt. The next week I said it again, “Why are we trying to put our own feelings into the vessel that God chose and presume what Mary must have thought, when she tells us exactly how she felt”? Last week when we came to the section in Luke 1:46 -56 referred to in my Bible as “Mary’s Song” the teacher says” were gonna skip this part” Wait! WHAT?????
    American culture is so focused on the artist pictures of the nativity and Contemporary Christian Christmas Songs like “Mary did you know?” , that they don’t want to look close at what the Bible says about the events. And the impact they have on us personally. Are we the ones that are “freaked out” by the message because we don’t understand Emmanuel GOD with us – in us?
    I was captured by the symbolism and the reality of the child conceived by the Holy Spirit living in Mary. That same Holy Spirit ,sent from God ,lives in me!

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    • I will incline my ear to a proverb;
      I will disclose my dark saying on the harp. (Psalm 49: 4)
      I will open my mouth in a parable;
      I will utter dark sayings of old. (Psalm 78:2)
      Son of man, pose a riddle, and speak a parable to the house of Israel. (Ezekiel 17: 2)
      Therefore I speak to them in parables because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Matthew 13: 13; Mark 4: 11-12; Luke 8: 10; John 16: 25; Isaiah 6: 9, 10)
      There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
      Yes, four which I do not understand;
      The way of an eagle in the air,
      The way of a serpent on a rock,
      The way of a ship in the midst of the sea,
      And the way of a man with a virgin. (Proverbs 30: 18-19)

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    • You’re right. We want to sensationalize Mary and get lost in conjecture where the answers are right there in the text. We also want to think of Mary as a 21st century American teenager, which . . . is problematic, at best. 🙂

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  2. Best Christmas presentation of these timeless symbols I believe I have ever read.

    This will find its way into my keepsakes of Advent/Christmas devotional material.

    I praise God every day that this native New Yorker & this “Golden Stater” came to know each other & develop, I pray, a lifetime friendship!

    Can’t wait to see what The Lord gives you to share come Holy Week 2015 – March 29th to April 5th!

    GOD BLESS ALL OF YOU!

    David

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  3. God as an Artist? No! Not our perfectly stoic God.

    Sarcasm aside, I completely agree that God is far more artsy-fartsy than we give Him credit. What I want to know, and I’m being perfectly serious about this. What does that tell us about things like mosquitoes? Things that seem utterly worthless to us as humans. What was God doing?

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    • God invented mosquitoes as part of the 10 plagues, but forgot to uninvent them. That was actually part of what Jesus was supposed to do when he came, but the Pharisees got him so worked up, he forgot about it.

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  4. I love this post. Sorry I haven’t commented in a while.

    God’s so “meta,” right now:

    My one thought is that we tend to forget about God’s hugeness. Think about it, He is so infinite and amazing that we like to say he is or isn’t one thing. You touched on the fact that most of the leaders in the western church are A-brained and that most definitely influences most of what we hear about God, and therefore what we think about God.

    It’s narrow-minded of us, and rather easy, to forget that God isn’t just creative or non-creative, easy going or strict, light-hearted or deathly serious. He’s both. He’s “yes” to that either/or question. He’s more than that or this.

    He’s not just creative, he invented creativity! That’s so astounding to me. Just think of how every natural thing works and imagine that it didn’t HAVE to be that way. What if light wasn’t faster than sound? What if colors were muted and all we had was grey upon grey? Imagine the first painting ever done. Imagine the first musical instrument ever constructed. Those things were created in the unknown and unexplored! Mozart’s a slouch compared to the first guy to make an instrument! God is the same way, his canvas is so blank that he created a canvas to create upon, then made us long to do the same in infinite ways. So, of course he’s creative and so are we, in more ways than we can even realize.

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    • Great insights, Scott.

      When you say, “God is more than that or this,” you hit on an interesting and critical point. Think about the Church. We always say that we are trying to be more like Christ, but when I was studying I Corinthians about the distribution of spiritual gifts, I realized that God has made us different on purpose, and even restricted us from various things so that we would become interdependent (not a popular word in a culture that promotes individualism: “you can do it!”). Only as a GROUP can we be like Christ. None of us can be like Christ in ourselves, because we were made to function as a unit.

      That means all the eyes, ears, noses and mouths need to learn how to coexist so the world can see the face of God. But we are much happier getting along in our denominational borders, thus we have a hard time seeing a fuller picture of God, which includes all aspects of his creation.

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    • In more ways than we can realize? YES!

      We just accept the world as we see it. We don’t think about a pre-existent spiritual world that is actually considered more real than this one. Hebrews calls the natural world a “shadow” of the “true,” spiritual world. We think of the spiritual world as shadows.

      God doesn’t need to eat or drink or sleep. Those things are inventions. Why would he make them, knowing that by creating the need to eat, he automatically doomed millions of people to die of hunger? There are deeper, more critical reasons for the invention of hunger, reasons that apparently are more important to God than the possibility of physical death. From this side of the fence, nothing is worse. But from his side…

      When I teach this concept to my college classes, I tell them that there are two ways to read a novel. One is just to ride along with the story, enjoying the invented world and characters, getting lost in the story. The other is to search for the author. How do we do that? Examine his choices. How does he use words? How does he create characters? How does the story play out? We can determine values, level of creativity, etc. by reading the novel with a certain mentality, but we have to be looking for it to see it.

      I’m afraid that most people are satisfied just knowing that the novel was written, but do not really know how to look for the author in the text without thinking of it as pure conjecture. No, these studies are not only possible, but according to Romans 1, we are accountable for the witness of creation.

      Remember when Jesus told the Jews that the sign of Jonah was enough to condemn them? They didn’t even know that story was a sign. They weren’t thinking in those ways. Are we just as blind?

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  5. Thanks for this, John! Beautiful reminders of the symbolism surrounding the birth of Christ. One more to consider regarding the shepherds: Yes, they were lowly, and God’s choice to announce the Savior to them first shows that Christ was coming for all, not just kings and princes. Yes, as you say, putting them on the scene pointed toward the good Shepherd. But also, I think of all the professionals God could have come to (say, the tailors, or blacksmiths, or farmers…take your pick), this particular group was the most familiar with the concept of a sacrificial lamb. They cared for and raised the lambs used at the passover, and the sacrifice of the perfect/spotless lamb year after year would have left their hearts most ready to understand the concept of Jesus as a sacrifice…though I have no idea when this dawned on them – at the moment of seeing the baby or over many years as they reflected on the experience they had that night. (I heard a sermon on this once, and wrote a song called “The Shepherd and the Lamb”). At any rate, it’s another cool layer of symbolism.

    Not symbolic, but noteworthy…the shepherds had to also risk a lot to visit the child in Bethlehem. Any other professional might have just closed up shop and gone to check out the baby in sheer curiosity. But when you leave a flock of sheep on a hillside, you don’t know if you’re going to come back to a scattered or devoured flock – which would mean lost livelihood. It COST them something to obey the angels, so their obedience means more.

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    • Yes. Thanks, Trisha. I think you’re hitting on a whole other level of understanding, something more practical and embedded in culture, but still symbolic and instructive.

      I was thinking about the image itself: the God-man in a food trough, surrounded by shepherds with a star overhead. Moving out from that pure visual, we move out to the more practical and culture considerations, considerations that are just as interesting and invite us to be like those shepherds–obedient, open and humble.

      Think of the star on this level. The reason those kings followed it is because they recognized it as an omen announcing a coming king. Where did that come from? God? Superstition? Observation? In any case, God used a sign that was embedded in culture to draw the wise men to his son, a King. I think that kind of instance is also on that second plane of interpretation.

      The manger? A humble cradle, an ironic nest for God. Also on this level of interpretation.

      COMMENT MORE! Great insights.

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  6. Regarding the three gifts gold, frankincense, and myrrh … not only was Jesus assimilating himself to the building which is the temple, but also in His fullness within the building and the nation of Israel, then of course, to the world. That is as prophet, priest, and king. The layers are deep.

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