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“The infancy narratives in the gospels are not about the baby Jesus but about men and women awaiting the triumphant Messiah, who were promised suffering instead. Rejection at the inn is followed by Simeon’s bitter prophecy, “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also).” Herod’s menace fulfills for Matthew Jeremiah’s word about Rachel weeping for her children. The peasants for whom, legend says, St. Francis invented the manger scene knew full well that for a child to be born in a barn means for the mother — poverty, stench, and rejection by men, not sweet-smelling hay and cute woolly lambs at play. “Little baby Jesus,” clean, chubby, innocent — and in our art usually blond, Aryan — has nothing to do with the gospel. Not the innocence of the infant but the obedience of the person Jesus saves us.

“From here it is but a short step to note that what fourth-century Christendom celebrated was not an event but a doctrine, not a life breaking into the world but the miracle of incarnation transforming it. If in the effort to save Christmas we bring to it the full weight of the miracle of God-made-infant, we fall into the docetic heresy, affirming the full divine presence apart from the story of the man. Divine sonship is clearly proclaimed first at Jesus’ baptism; before that the gospels ony point to its promise. For the sake of the real meaning of incarnation, we must, like the gospels, see the cross behind the cradle. It is because that can no longer be done with American Christmas that the time may well have come for surgery.”

— John Howard Yoder, “On the Meaning of Christmas,” pages 47, 48 in Spiritual Writings: John Howard Yoder, edited by Jenny Howell and Paul Martens, (Orbis, 2011).

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