When Matteo Ricci went to China in the 16th century, he took samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it. They readily accepted portraits of Mary holding the baby Jesus, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had come to be executed, his audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They couldn’t worship a crucified God.
As I thumb through my Christmas cards, I realize that we do much the same thing. In our celebrations and observances, we may not think about how the story that began at Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.
In Luke’s account of the Christmas story, only one person—the old man Simeon—seems to grasp the mysterious nature of what God has set in motion. “This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against,” he told Mary, and then he made the prediction that a sword would pierce her own soul (2:34-35).
Simeon knew that though on the surface little had changed—Herod still ruled, Roman troops still occupied Israel—underneath, everything had changed. God’s promised redemption had arrived.