Monday, December 24, 2007

Remembering the king of Kings

It's interesting to me that here in the United States of America, a land that is built on a foundation of religious freedom, we have a national holiday to commemorate the birth of a great religious leader. I mean, have no doubt, he was a great man, and although he was not understood by so many in his own lifetime. He was martyred while he was still young, but in the short time he walked this earth, he shook up society in a way that will probably never be forgotten. While I am a proponent of freedom of religion, and I realize that sometimes means keeping religion out of government, I wholly support the official status of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.

While I am glad we commemorate this great man who may be one of the greatest Americans of all time, there is something about him that strikes me as interesting in the way it contrasts with that other great religious figure whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow. If a person were to do anything more with King's birthday than simply take a day off from work, they might take some time to review his great "I Have a Dream" speech, study his work in civil rights activism, take time to mentally devote yourself to King's teachings of non-violent political activism or some such thing. I am not aware of anybody who takes the time on King's birthday to sit down and look at King's baby pictures.

To tell you the truth, I've never seen a baby picture of Dr. King; who knows if any are in existence? But seeing as it's his birthday, it's really the commemoration of his birth; do people paint pictures of his mother and father bringing him home from the hospital? Do people make pilgrimages to Atlanta to see his birthplace (Maybe they do, I don't know)? We commemorate the day of his birth because we revere him for all the great things he did long after he was born.

Even on your own birthday I bet nobody pulls out the album and shows of pictures of your mother cradling you in her arms. The day of your birth is the day that we use to commemorate you, but not really to commemorate your infancy, because it was a far more important and memorable day to your mother than it will ever really be to you.

So what's the deal with Christmas, then? Why do we take a man who did so much in the late part of his life, and on his birthday, unlike anybody else in history, we actually take time to remember his actual birth? We buy big plastic glowing models of the manger scene and erect them in our yards, we buy small pewter ones and put them on our mantels, we buy tiny ones made of glass and hang them on branches of trees that we inexplicably have brought into our house. (Imagine telling your family in May that you want to go cut down a tree and put it in your living room! But that's another story...) We get together and reenact the story, making some teenage girl stuff a pillow in her dress and sit sidesaddle on a rented donkey while people parade by and ooh and ahh and say how wonderful it is for an unmarried teenage girl to be pregnant. Everything is about an infant that lived a couple thousand years ago, and in the midst of celebrating the birth, we do all sorts of crazy things that we would simply never do any other time of year for any other historical figure.

Why? It's funny, but there is actually a good reason.

When you look at King, the fact is, as I hinted at before, that the fact of his birth is not particularly important to his life. Who remembers the details other than his parents, who are both long-dead? All of his accomplishments, and those of pretty much everyone else, occurred much later in life, when we and they were adults. That's what makes them great, and why we remember them, the fact we use birthdays to honor people is just an arbitrary cultural way to devote a specific day to them.

Jesus, however, is different. Because of who he was, and what his life meant, because he is both God and the Son of God, because for him, being born was actually a volitional choice, the day of his birth is in many ways the most important day of Jesus' life, and the beginning of his life's work. In order for Jesus to die for us, he first had to be born in a human body for us.

So many of us, in searching for miracles, forget that miracles happen every day when new lives start. It's an amazing thing for a single-celled zygote to grow and mature within the womb and become a living human being. Life itself is a miracle, and to think that the creator of life himself would take on the mantle of life and live through it himself? For the being who is so great that the universe cannot contain him to force himself to be contained by the womb of a peasant girl?

For Jesus, birth itself was one of his greatest accomplishments and one of his greatest blessings to us, and as odd as it may be, it is right, very right for us to celebrate not just the man Jesus, but his very act of being born into this world so that we could have Emmanuel, "God with us."

Merry Christmas.

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