For me, Christmas later this week will again be enhanced by the “third dimension” of the Christmas Gospel provided in Revelation 12. While Luke 2 provides the human dimension and John 1 the divine dimension, Revelation 12 has a third dimension to add, a reminder of what else was going on while those shepherds were watching their flocks by night.
I’m not advocating changing the manger scene out on the front lawn, but Revelation 12 does suggest a rather startling addition to the sheep and the goats: a crouching great red dragon, the serpent that had been dreading Christmas ever since Genesis 3 and its words about the One to come who would “bruise” his head (v. 15). John’s vision in Revelation 12 vividly pictures the reception that the serpent had planned for the Child and His life on earth. Its grotesque imagery always arrests my attention again and helps me to remember the proportions and consequences of that birth that holy night.
Here is what John saw and recorded (vv. 1-6):
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
This vision, of course, has to do with much more than our Savior’s physical birth, but it does add another dimension to those offered by Luke 2 and John 1 that is helpful to celebrating Christmas. It is a potent reminder that the seemingly peaceful and quiet birth of the Christ Child away in the manger, announced by angels and observed by shepherds, which lends itself so well to Christmas cards and lawn displays, was not peaceful and quiet. Like the increasingly popular 3-D video productions of today’s entertainment industry, the rawness and brutality of Revelation 12 draws me into the picture and causes me to remember what really was going on that Christmas night.
This dark third dimension of the Bethlehem story was highlighted a number of years ago when Tamara and I were visiting Jerusalem and we hired a taxi to take us to Bethlehem. Our Israeli taxi took us as far as a Palestinian checkpoint, where we walked through a well-guarded opening in the barricade to take a Palestinian taxi for the remainder of our little journey.
After our visit to Bethlehem and upon our return to the checkpoint, our Israeli taxi was waiting as we had requested, but we found that we had arrived just at the changing of the Palestinian guard, which included moving some armored equipment just as we were about to depart. When our Israeli taxi driver refused to give way to a Palestinian vehicle, heated words were exchanged, and we found our taxi surrounded by heavily-armed men peering into our windows.
In due time, cooler heads prevailed, and our taxi was allowed to leave. But looking back, it actually was quite the appropriate experience for a visit to Bethlehem. Even today under the same skies where angels witnessed to peace on earth, mere meters removed from the place where the Christ Child in mercy lay down His sweet head (and ultimately His sinless life ) to make possible life together with God and men, the dragon still makes his presence known.
Revelation 12 goes on to picture the dragon very furious, intent upon a war of revenge against “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (v. 17), the story of our lives. But John also announces the dragon’s defeat and provides opportunity to witness our own victory celebration (Revelation 7).
Which is where our own three-dimensional lives of witness, mercy, and life together enter the picture. Giving witness, showing mercy, and living together as family in the Church flow from a deep appreciation of the Christmas Gospel in all its dimensions. May yours be that kind of 3-D Christmas this year.