How does the Christmas story end?
It is easy to forget how the Christmas story ends.
There is so much anticipation leading to the manger—ancient prophecies and a virgin birth—but the story does not end with victorious angels proclaiming “glory to God”. In Matthew 2:13, God wakes Joseph from the precious sleep of a new parent with a dire warning:
“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
What follows is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible—a jealous King Herod commands the execution of every baby to be found in Bethlehem. Joseph would have known many of the families as people returned home for the census, and I cannot imagine how he dealt with this bloody confirmation of the royalty of his own child.
This is not the Christmas-card nativity scene that we grew up with. It is ugly. It is raw… and it is exactly the comfort that my students need as they spend this Christmas behind bars.
The miracle of the Christmas story is that it does not end in the manger. Incarnation is the beginning of God’s kingdom, and it was never meant to stay in a Bethlehem stable. There is a hollow look I have seen in a thousand inmates’ faces since my first prison visit in 2001—it speaks of trauma, guilt and the defensive assumption that no outsider will ever understand them. The Christmas story is proof that God understands our suffering, because He chose to experience it firsthand. Mary and Joseph—running for their lives into Egypt—reminds us that Jesus understands the confusion and fear of the world where we are living. He understands Drakenstein, Pollsmoor and the twenty other prisons where we serve.
The Christmas story is at the center of our work at Hope Prison Ministry, because when our students discover themselves in the shadows of a smelly Bethlehem stable, impossible things begin to happen. A woman forgives the murderer of her child. A man forgives his father for beating him as a child, and asks forgiveness from the victim of his own violence. The incarnation has woven their lives into something eternal – the reconciliation between enemies, made possible by reconciliation with our Heavenly Father.
The Christmas story ends in darkness, because this is where so many of our stories begin. It is proof that we need to be following the same star and worshipping the same King. Emmanuel—God has chosen us! He has seen the dirt and chaos of our lives, but He is not finished yet.