“She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
Luke 2:7 (Common English Bible)
My wife, Grace, and I collect nativity sets. Over the course of our marriage we have collected over thirty, each beautiful and unique in their own way. Several have come from Congo, Africa, where my wife was born and raised by missionary parents. Others are from Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and Israel. There are also beautiful sets from Alaska and from Native American reservations in the west. Two are whimsical sets from North Carolina – one that depicts every character of the nativity as black bears and another as red cardinals. They have been fashioned from metal, stone, clay, wax and wood. Each represents a cherished memory and all stir the wonder of that first Christmas.
Christmas begins with wonder. It is a story whereby we are reminded that God has come into the world for every generation and for every person. It is a story that defies reasonableness. God, the creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is them, comes to earth as a vulnerable baby, to parents of little material possessions, in the non-descript town of Bethlehem. The parents have no stature, no power and no capacity to provide anything more than a manger to place their first child. Absent is any hint of privilege, any suggestion that this family will ever attract the notice of others. Yet, shepherds are drawn to the nativity, leaders of great nations travel considerable distances to bring gifts of substantial value and angels sing from the heavens of the birth of Jesus. The story is astounding, incredible, and outside the parameters of credible story-telling. Serious engagement with the Christmas story begins with wonder.
Wonder is not doubt. For those who doubt, they are unable to see. Their eyes are clouded by a determined focus on what they understand. Wonder exists where there is hope in inexplicable love, and uncommon generosity. Wonder springs from believing that there is more in life than can ever be explained and the deep desire to be surprised. Christian wonder arises from the ancient promise of a God who cares deeply for us, clinging to that promise tenaciously, particularly at those times when there seems to be so little evidence for it, and paying attention, recognizing that God may surprise at any moment. The shepherds and the magi arrived at the nativity not because of incontrovertible proof that the Holy Son of God was born but because they were paying attention to a God that surprises.
For Christmas to be more today than a nostalgic glance backward there must be a recovery of wonder. We cannot rejoice at Christmas unless we rejoice that this is a season where images of the nativity – in our homes and churches, on Christmas cards and wrapping paper – remind us that God comes to us in unexpected moments, in a surprising fashion, and always in a manner that is beyond our ability to understand. We live in a world that doesn’t know what to make of the love of God; a love that is free of ulterior motives. God baffles us and mystery and wonder permeate God’s presence and activity in the world, including the Christmas story. The Christian faith has never asked that we dismiss our questions. But its promises are realized only when we permit ourselves to experience expectant wonder once again.