Ordinary Hope

I love the Christmas season.  For several weeks, everything takes on a special quality.  Special foods and drinks appear.  Special music fills the air.  Parties and family gatherings celebrate special relationships.  Special traditions remind us of special memories.  Decorations and lights transform ordinary trees and buildings.  Perhaps you have given or received a gift of special significance in this time.  Special ideas like hope, peace, love, and generosity are proclaimed from pulpits and TV specials.

At its core, Christmas commemorates Jesus’ birth.  The opening chapters of Matthew and Luke portray this as a special birth in several ways.  Genealogies and prophecies connect it with the ancient promises of God.  Elizabeth and Mary conceive unexpectedly.  The mere anticipation of their children’s births prompts stirring poetry from Mary and Zechariah.  Angels announce good news for all people, beginning with shepherds.  Mysterious magi bring gifts.  We are familiar with these special elements.

This year, as I read and consider the stories again, I find that they contain elements which are quite ordinary.  An engagement takes an undesired turn.  The government issues a decree and people are forced to adapt.  A pregnant woman becomes “great with child,” as the King James Version describes Mary.  Insufficient housing places hardship on the marginalized.  A ruler ruthlessly schemes to protect his power.  These personal and political elements are ordinary parts of our world, then and now, and should not be overlooked in the Christmas stories.

Everything mentioned so far is either prelude to Jesus’ birth or response to it.  What about the actual birth?  The gospels express the actual event of Jesus’ birth with remarkable restraint.  Matthew 1:25 – “But Joseph did not know her until she gave birth to a son, and he called his name Jesus.”  That’s it!  Matthew does not directly narrate Jesus’ birth event at all; he merely mentions that it happened and that the name Jesus was chosen.

Luke 2:6-7 – “While they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she swaddled him and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  The time came – Mary gave birth – she wrapped up her baby.  This is the most extensive description of Jesus’ birth in the entire Bible!

The central event of Christmas merits no special description – only three brief, basic verses.  It is simple, straightforward, and ordinary.  A baby was born of a woman, something that has happened literally billions of times.  The God of all creation, who could enter the world in any special way, chose to come in the same ordinary way as every single person.

God does not avoid the ordinary realities of our world.  This is our Christian hope – God embraces and personally participates in the ordinary.  Jesus experienced ordinary birth and would go on to know humanity’s common experiences of suffering and death.

God’s presence in the ordinary means that ordinary does not equal unimportant.  Jesus’ birth event was ordinary yet it stirred angels, shepherds, magi, and kings.  Centuries later it continues to inspire awe and wonder in proclaimers, farmers, scientists, and politicians around the globe.  God takes the ordinary and fills it with extraordinary significance.  Birth, life, suffering, death – Jesus does not avoid our ordinary realities.  He knows them personally and transforms them.

I love the Christmas season.  It reminds me that our ordinary lives take on a special quality when God is involved.  This is hope.

Aaron Hedges is Inheritance of Hope’s CEO.