On earth, a baby was born, a king got wind of it, a chase ensued. In heaven, the Great Invasion had begun: a daring raid by the ruler of the forces of good into the universe's seat of evil.

In 1993 I read a news report about a "Messiah sighting" in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. Twenty thousand Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews live in Crown Heights, and many of them believed the Messiah was dwelling among them in the person of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Word of the rabbi's public appearance spread like a flash fire through the streets of Crown Heights, and Lubavitchers in their black coats and curly sidelocks were soon dashing toward the synagogue where the rabbi customarily prayed. The lucky ones connected to a network of beepers got a head start, sprinting toward the synagogue the instant they felt a slight vibration. They jammed by the hundreds into a main hall, elbowing each other and even climbing the pillars to create more room. The hall filled with an air of anticipation and frenzy normally found at a championship sporting event, not a religious service.

The rabbi was 91 years old. He had suffered a stroke the year before and had not been able to speak since. When the curtain finally pulled back, those who had crowded into the synagogue saw a frail old man with a long beard who could do little but wave, tilt his head, and move his eyebrows. No one in the audience seemed to mind, though. "Long live our master, our teacher, and our rabbi, King, Messiah, forever and ever!" they sang in unison, over and over, building in volume until the rabbi made a small gesture with his hand and the curtain closed. They departed slowly, savoring the moment, in a state of ecstasy. (Rabbi Schneerson died in June 1994. Now Lubavitchers are awaiting his bodily resurrection.)

When I first read the news account I nearly laughed out loud. Who are these people trying to kid - a nonagenarian mute Messiah in Brooklyn? And then it struck me: I was reacting to Rabbi Schneerson exactly as people in the first century had reacted to Jesus. A Messiah from Galilee? A carpenter's kid, no less?

The scorn I felt as I read about the rabbi and his fanatical followers gave me a small glimpse of the kind of responses Jesus faced throughout his life. His neighbors asked, "Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" Other countrymen scoffed, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" His own family tried to put him away, believing he was out of his mind. The religious experts sought to kill him. As for the common people, one moment they judged him demon-possessed and raving mad, the next they forcibly tried to crown him king.

It took courage, I believe, for God to lay aside power and glory and to take his place among human beings who would greet him with the same mixture of haughtiness and skepticism that I felt when I first heard about Rabbi Schneerson of Brooklyn. It took courage to endure the shame, and courage even to risk descent to a planet known for its clumsy violence, among a race known for rejecting its prophets. A God of all power deliberately put himself in such a state that Satan could tempt him, demons could taunt him, and lowly human beings could slap his face and nail him to a cross. What more foolhardy thing could God have done?

"Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator," said G. K. Chesterton. The need for such courage began with Jesus' first night on earth and did not end until his last.

Who is he in yonder stall?

Christmas art shows Jesus' family, the Holy Family, as icons stamped in gold foil. In the paintings, a calm Mary receives the news of the Annunciation as a kind of benediction - but that is not at all how Luke tells the story. Mary was "greatly troubled" and "afraid" at the angel's appearance, and when the angel delivered the lofty words about the Son of the Most High whose kingdom will never end, Mary had one thing only on her mind: "But I'm a virgin!"

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Once, a young unmarried lawyer named Cynthia bravely stood up in my church in Chicago and told of a past sin of fornication, which we already knew about: we saw her hyperactive son running up and down the aisles every Sunday. Cynthia had taken the lonely road of bearing him and caring for him after his father decided to skip town. Cynthia's sin was no worse than many others, and yet, as she told us, it had such conspicuous consequences. She could not hide the result of that one act of passion, sticking out as it did from her abdomen for nine months until a child emerged to change every hour of every day of the rest of her life. No wonder the Jewish teenager Mary felt greatly troubled - she faced the same prospects even without the act of passion.

In the modern United States, where each year a million teenage girls get pregnant out of wedlock, Mary's predicament has undoubtedly lost some of its force, but in a closely knit Jewish community in the first century, the news an angel delivered could not have been entirely welcome. The law regarded a betrothed woman who became pregnant as an adulteress, subject to death by stoning.

Matthew tells of Joseph generously agreeing to divorce Mary rather than press charges, until an angel shows up to calm his feelings of betrayal. Luke tells of Mary hurrying off to the one person who could possibly understand what she was going through: her relative Elizabeth, who has miraculously become pregnant in old age following another angelic annunciation. Elizabeth indeed believes Mary's story and shares her joy, and yet the scene poignantly underscores the contrast between the two women. The whole countryside is talking about the miracle of Elizabeth's healed womb; meanwhile, Mary has to hide the shame of her own miracle.

A few months later, the birth of John the Baptist took place with great fanfare, complete with midwives, doting relatives, and the traditional village chorus celebrating the birth of a Jewish male. Six months after that, Jesus was born far from home, with no midwife, extended family, or village chorus present. A male head of household would have sufficed for the Roman census; did Joseph drag his pregnant wife along to Bethlehem in order to spare her the ignominy of childbirth in her home village?

C. S. Lewis has written about God's plan: "The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear - a Jewish girl at her prayers." Today as I read the accounts of Jesus' birth I tremble to think of the fate of the world resting on the responses of two rural teenagers. How many times must Mary have gone over the angel's words as she felt the Son of God kicking against the walls of her uterus? How many times must Joseph have second-guessed his own encounter with an angel - just a dream? - as he endured the hot shame of living among neighbors who could plainly see the changing shape of the woman he planned to marry?

We know nothing of Jesus' grandparents. What must they have felt? Did they respond like so many parents of unmarried teenagers today, with an outburst of fury and moral lectures and then perhaps a period of sullen silence until at last the bright-eyed newborn arrives to melt the ice and arrange a fragile family truce?

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Nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal - it seems almost as if God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any accusation of favoritism. I am impressed that when the Son of God became a human being, he played by the rules, harsh rules: small towns do not treat kindly young boys who grow up with questionable paternity.

Malcolm Muggeridge observed that in modern times, with family-planning clinics offering ways to correct "mistakes" that might disgrace a family name, "It is, in point of fact, extremely improbable … that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary's pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a Savior more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed, would be too humane to allow one to be born."

The virgin Mary, though, whose family was not planned, had a different response. She heard the angel out, pondered the enormous consequences, and replied, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." Every work of God comes with two edges, great joy and great pain, and in that matter-of-fact response, Mary embraced both. She was the first to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of the personal cost.

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