Looking at the world through the lens of Bethlehem’s manger can make every birth a Christmas, and every life an incarnation.
Several years ago, a student responded to a class discussion of the birth accounts in Matthew and Luke, the relatively late and rather different stories at the center of our Christmas reflection and celebration.
After our review of the details of the two accounts and their place in the development of the gospel tradition, she said, “You know, it’s hard for me to tell whether this is a report of an event or a vehicle for an idea.”
As students often do, she had put words around a way of thinking about much of the biblical testimony that enables it to be the word of God in a much deeper way than many of our debates about its truth allow.
As I have thought about her observation, it has become more meaningful as a reminder that the Bible is both picture and lens – something to look at and see God at work in the history of a covenant people, but also something to look through and see God at work everywhere and at all times.
Luke’s narrative of Mary’s experience – the journey to Bethlehem, the inn with no vacancy, the meager stable and manger – is a masterful piece of literature, full of symbolism and theological affirmation about the significance of this birth. It is indeed a vivid picture to look at, and centuries of art and pageantry have intensified its beauty.
But what if, in our engagement with this story, we let our eyes shift from looking at the story to looking through it to the rest of our world? What if we begin to see it not just as a report of something God did once upon a time, but also as a disclosure of what God is always in the business of doing? What if the picture becomes a lens, or in the student’s words, a vehicle for an idea?
Having benefitted for many years from the work of an excellent optometrist, I know that the lenses we look through have a lot to do with what we see. On the metaphorical level, the dominant lenses of our culture cause us to make and justify discriminations of race, gender, social and economic standing, nationality, immigration status, sexual orientation and countless other ways we classify ourselves. Each lens conditions what we see.
The picture of Bethlehem’s manger tells us that God enters human history in the weak, vulnerable, dependent form of a child, but a child who will grow to become the very expression of God’s nature and the fulfillment of the image of God that is part of every person. When this picture becomes a lens, what effect does that have on the way we see the world and its people?
If the story is merely a report and a picture of what God did, then art and pageantry are the appropriate and perhaps only response. But if it is a disclosure of what God is always doing, then seeing life in a new way through its lens continues its drama into all the highways and byways of life. We too become shepherds and magi, returning from Bethlehem, changed forever in our ways of seeing the world.
The ethical implications of this?
If we don’t see the Christ child in the cradles of the homeless shelters, in the arms of a frightened mother in Afghanistan, in the faces of the millions of victims of our broken value systems, then the one we see in our beautifully crafted Nativity scenes is probably not him either.
May our visits to the manger this year be joyful ones, and may they continue to change the way we see the rest of God’s world.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).