The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
December 24, 2020
Text: Luke 2:1-20
“What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” (LSB 370:1). When I hear those words, I often think of a Facebook meme one of my dear friends posted a number of years ago. I don’t know if he created it, or where he got it. And you should know, I don’t usually recommend getting your theology from Facebook, or from memes, least of all Facebook memes. But this one hits the mark. It is an image of our Lord Jesus on the lap of His mother, Mary. But it is a split-screen, divided down the middle. On one side is half of the sublime 1899 painting, “Madonna of the Lilies,” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. If you were blessed to receive a Christmas card this year from Aaron Grahn, you may have in your possession a copy of this image. On the other side of the division, though, is half of the heart wrenching portrait of “Our Lady of Sorrows” holding the limp Body of our Lord Jesus, asleep in the death of crucifixion. The juxtaposition of these images, like the juxtaposition we sing in the Christmas carol, answers the question: What Child is this, whose birth we celebrate this night? Is He just some mythical, magical figure, like a jolly old elf, another symbol of the season? Is He perhaps an ideal fashioned by the longings of our hearts and the spirit of the times? Is He an inspiring revolutionary or a great moral teacher, the pinnacle of human potential? Or is He, perhaps, more? What Child is this whom Mary bounces on her knee, with joy and contentment, as she sits among the lilies? (Yes, the lilies, those are so important! See if you can guess their significance.) Who is this Child, hands upraised in benediction, eyes piercing your soul as He gazes upon you? The answer is in the second painting, and more importantly, in the Holy Gospel as the Spirit unfolds it. This Child is not born to reach the heights of our own ideals of greatness and glory. This is the Child born to die. And not just any ignominious death. He is Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This Child is born to die for you.
“Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you” (v. 2). We sing it in the hymn. “Hail, hail the Word made flesh, The babe, the son of Mary!” That is the whole point of Christmas, isn’t it? Not an ideal, not a myth or a legend. Not simply the paragon of wisdom and virtue. It’s not even just that a baby has been born. Lots of babies were born in the world that night, all of them, certainly, reason to rejoice. But only One was announced by an angel to shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks. Only One whose birth announcement broke heaven wide open for the celestial host to sing the first Christmas carol. Only One did the angel preach as Savior, which is Christ the Lord, the King, the Son of David. Good tidings of great joy. God has come down to rescue His people in this Child. Unto you… unto you!... is born this day a Savior, and He is the answer to all that plagues you. Your sin. Your death. Hell itself. They all come to an end in Him. He is the promised Seed of the woman, whose crushed heal crushes the serpent’s head.
It is quite a picture the Gospel paints, isn’t it? And yet, the picture is historical. It is factual. These things really happened, roughly two millennia ago. The Christmas of nostalgia and legends does us no real good, just as a Christ who is only spirit, and not flesh and blood, helps us poor, sinful humans none. It was a night not unlike this one, though we’re not sure what time of year (the Church Fathers made a guess by some pretty specious calculations). But there they are, the poor couple, out on the road, unable to secure lodging. Holed up in the cold, probably hungry, the sights, sounds, and smells are very real for the Holy Family. The emotions they must have felt, fresh from rejection in Nazareth for a scandalous pregnancy, gossip and cruelty, and incredulity (“No, really, I’m a virgin, and this is God’s Son I’m carrying!”). The census and taxes, weighed down by the heavy hand of the government. And, again, rejection. No place. No room. Not even for a mother whose hour has come. And then, the birth pangs and the labor in the straw and the filth.
But God holds history in the palm of His hands, and the details of this painting are composed by the Spirit with purpose. They have a meaning. They point us to the picture in all its fulness. The little Lord Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Luther says, in the same way, He is wrapped in the pages of Scripture. Yes, “Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds [Luke 2:12]. Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths,” says Luther, “but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.”
And there are the beasts, with Christ in their midst, a reminder to us that, while the respectable world has no room for Him, Christ comes in the very midst of beastly sinners in their stinking barnyard filth, and for them, for us, to save us from our beastliness and filth, and restore in us His image. “Why lies He in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here The silent Word is pleading” (LSB 370:2). He lays there for you, to grow up and be the Sacrifice of Atonement that delivers you from death and hell and gives you righteousness and life.
And the manger… Mangers were made of wood or stone. And in either case, the manger points first of all to our Lord’s death for our sins. From wooden manger, to wooden cross. From stone manger, to stone tomb. It doesn’t matter which it was. This, again, is what makes the birth of this Baby so remarkable. This Baby is God born to die for you and for your salvation. The shepherds (and let it not be lost on you that the word “pastor” simply means “shepherd”) preach what they’ve heard from heaven, for Mary to keep and ponder in her heart. And Mary is the very picture of the Church, which does this very thing, keeping and pondering the preaching of God’s Word. And so you. This is what you do.
But so also (and this is a very ancient interpretation): The manger is a feeding trough for animals. And here we are, the beastly sinners for whom this Child is born to die, gathered into His stable, and what does He do, but lay Himself out on the Altar for us to eat and to drink, and so be healed? That the little Lord Jesus is laid in a manger preaches to us that He is the Bread of Life, Bread from Heaven, born in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread,” that we may eat and live eternally.
The picture is worth a thousand words, or better, the words paint the true picture. “What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” The Babe, certainly, but also the grown man pierced through, the cross having borne for me, for you. In every picture of the Nativity, you should see a picture of the cross. For it is the cross that gives Christmas its meaning. On the cross, God dies for you for the forgiveness of your sins. On the cross, God dies to reconcile you to Himself. Oh, and don’t forget the lilies. Okay, they are an artist’s embellishment, but you know what the lilies preach. That is why you bring them to Church on one particular Sunday every year. Mary’s Boy doesn’t stay dead. Jesus is risen and lives for you. And so you live by His death and life. Do you get the picture? “Raise, raise the song on high,” Mary lifts Him up before your eyes! “Joy, joy, for Christ is born, The babe, the son of Mary!” (v. 3). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Prefaces to the Old Testament, AE 35:236.