This week we mark Christmas, which for many of us is more than an excuse to exchange brightly wrapped gifts and chug eggnog.
For practicing Christians, it's also a holy day when we remember that Almighty God, the creator of the universe, sent his son to become flesh and dwell among us.
On our religion's calendar, perhaps the only day holier is Easter. That's when we celebrate what's an even bigger event, if possible — Jesus' resurrection, without which, St. Paul says, our whole faith is worthless.
Back in April, I wrote about the resurrection, and Jesus' curious choice to appear first after he arose to a weeping Mary Magdalene. This is striking because she was a troubled woman with a dubious past, in an age and place where even righteous women were treated not a lot better than cattle. Jesus previously had cast seven demons from her. Some legends hold she'd been a prostitute, too.
The resurrected Jesus could have appeared to anyone on Earth.
He picked her.
Recently, while reading the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth, and some related articles and commentaries, I realized God makes equally odd choices there as well.
Remember, this is the incarnation. The Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and impregnates her with a seed that will become the eternal savior of humanity.
In a world of possibilities, who does God select as the mother for the Messiah?
An unmarried teenage girl. Some modern writers speculate she might have been as young as 14. She's engaged to a local man, then turns up pregnant, which must turn a lot of heads — and, some commentators say, qualifies her to be stoned.
That leads us to her fiancé, the man who will serve as Jesus' surrogate father.
Joseph is a mere workingman, a carpenter from a backwater town a week's tough journey from the region's intellectual and religious capital, Jerusalem. There's no indication he's prosperous, educated or particularly well respected.
He's faced with a fiancé he assumes has cheated on him. After receiving a message from God, he weds her anyway. This must surely subject him to a double dose of gossip: he's either impregnated Mary himself before the acceptable time, or else he's the kind of guy who'll marry a girl who's humiliated him. Either way, he's a loser.
Just after Jesus' birth, we're told, a great multitude of heaven's angelic army (apparently that's a better translation than "heavenly host") is dispatched to announce this cosmos-shifting miracle — God's now become an infant lying in a feeding trough.
The angels startle a crew of shepherds camped out with their flock.
Shepherds in the first century are considered louts. They're the underclass. Mainly they're shiftless hirelings with a reputation for thievery. Indeed, their reputation is so bad that by law they can't hold a judicial office or offer testimony in court.
The other group to whom God makes known his son's birth is the magi, magicians and astrologers, practitioners of shadowy arts condemned by Jewish and later by Christian leaders. The second century church apologist Justin Martyr describes the magi as priests of an Eastern cult. Modern writers speculate they're from as far away as Persia (now Iran), India, Arabia or even China.
Do we see a pattern here yet?
God sends his only son from heaven to reside among mortals. Jesus embodies such authority that, in the New Testament's words, eventually every knee shall bow to him and every tongue confess he's the king above all kings and the lord above all lords.
Who does his father choose as witnesses to this monumental birth?
Caesar? Pompous religious authorities? Wealthy, powerful business titans? Famous Greek philosophers?
Nope. A teenager. A carpenter from the boondocks. Pilfering day laborers. Priests of some obscure, disreputable cult.
Here's the pattern: God prefers the least. The suspect. The no account. The foreigner. At Jesus' birth as well as at his resurrection, these are the people to whom he's sent. Not the brilliant and mighty, but the dim and lowly.
The Lord loves those no one else wants or trusts.
Just as important, they're the ones who love and accept him in return.
Those brutish shepherds, we're told, after hearing from the angels, rushed headlong into town to find the Christ child.
Having laid eyes on him, they returned to their fields. No doubt they were still profane and smelly and maybe even half-drunk.
But they were also, in Luke's phrase, "glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen."