I was at one of the Columbia District churches yesterday and goofed on one of the verses of “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” The third verse reads: “Sages, leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar, seek the great Desire of nations; ye have seen his natal star…” I ended up singing “natal scar” instead of “star.” It wasn’t a bad mistake. As a matter of fact, it was appropriate in a serendipitous way. Sure the verse was about the Magi coming to Jesus’ birth; but Jesus in-the-flesh is more about scars than stars; humility over vanity; service over being seen.
Ralph F. Wilson, in “Burlap, Boys, and Christmas,” gets at the heart of the difference between Jesus-of-the-Stars and Jesus-of-the-Scars. About Christmas pageants he said: “Angels are clean. Angels are beautiful. They seem almost otherworldly, since girl angels always seem to know their parts better than do boy shepherds. The angelic satin stuff goes pretty well in most Christmas pageants. The problems come with the burlap part. Do you know what real-life shepherds were like? Townspeople looked down on them. “Herdsmen!” they’d huff derisively. Shepherds would work with sheep all day, sleep outside with the animals at night and then come into town dirty, sweaty and smelly. Like boys. Tradesmen in the marketplace would be polite enough. Shopkeepers would wait on them, but everybody was happy when they moved along. Burlap fits the part. It really does. Angels get clouds and the Hallelujah Chorus for props. Shepherds get a stable. Maybe cattle lowing has a bit of romance. But conjure up the smells and the filth. No stainless steel dairy palace this, but a crude barn, with good reason for straw on the floor. Not exactly the setting you’d choose for a birth if you had the luxury of planning ahead. Angels seem appropriate to the birth of God’s son. But straw and sweat and burlap do not. Why, I ask, would the Son of God Most High enter life amidst the rubble of human existence, at the lowest rung of society, in obscurity and at the stable-edge of rejection even before he is born? And as hard as I think about it, I come back to one truth. God wanted to make it explicitly clear that He came to save each of us. He comes to the slimy, dark corners of our existence, the desperateness, the loneliness, the rejection, the pain. He comes to unswept barns and cold nights of despair. He comes because he understands them. He knows them intimately and came for the very purpose of delivering us from those raw stables to real Life.”