When we think of biblical Christmas stories, we naturally think of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. In fact, based on lifetimes of Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, in reality we probably imagine a harmonized Christmas story, bringing together various elements of each of these Gospels (Magi and shepherds together?).
But these are not the only stories of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. There’s also a rather disturbing version of the story in that enigmatic book at the close of the canon: Revelation. Revelation 12 provides a third Christmas story, couched in the imagery of ancient apocalyptic literature and still more ancient myths of cosmic conflict: a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head,” gives birth to “a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter,” while “an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” waits to devour the child as soon as it is born.
As you might imagine, the meaning of all this symbolism is well-debated, but, as I note in my book, The Beginning and the End, the basic contours seem fairly clear:
The “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:1), who gives birth to the “male child,” is most likely, in some sense, Israel. The number twelve here reflects the twelve tribes of Israel descending from the twelve sons of Jacob, and the image of the sun, moon, and twelve stars recalls Joseph’s dream of himself and his brothers as these patriarchs of Israel (Genesis 37:9).
The “enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” (12:3), who tries to devour the “male child” after his birth, is openly identified as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (12:9)—a clear reference to the serpent, the embodiment of evil in the world, in the curse story of Genesis 3.
And the “male child” himself is clearly Jesus: he is the one who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” (12:5). This is a brief quotation of Psalm 2:9, a royal song for the ancient Israelite kings descended from David, a psalm that was taken in at least some Jewish circles as referring ultimately to the future Messiah from David’s dynasty, and was consistently understood by the earliest Christians as referring to Jesus as Messiah (see, for example, Acts 4:25–26; 13:33; Hebrews 1:5). (The Beginning and the End, 55)
So what we have, then, is an apocalyptic depiction of the coming of the Messiah into the world—the birth of Jesus, a Christmas story. But this Christmas story is not all angels singing and peace on earth. Like Matthew’s story of the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, this Revelation Christmas story highlights some deeper, darker realities of our world in light of Christ’s coming:
The world is a strange mixture of order and chaos, life and death, beauty and abomination, truth and falsehood, goodness and evil. As soon as we see some good effort bearing life-giving fruit in the world, it seems we immediately see another good work destroyed by self-exaggerated pride or self-serving greed—sometimes even by Christians. And we experience this same tension in our own selves, don’t we? We struggle to do good, to avoid sin and evil, in a daily battle of the will. As described in an earlier chapter, these sorts of tensions go right back to the “knowledge of good and evil” we so inappropriately possess, as well as the curse of sin in the world, the widespread, deep death we experience as sinning humans.
The vision of a cosmic conflict in Revelation 12 highlights for us a strange paradox: the coming of Christ helps us in this struggle, bringing redemption from the enslavement of sin, salvation from this wide-ranging death, and power to resist the world’s evil (12:10–11); yet the coming of Christ has also provoked even greater evil in the world—“woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you!” (12:12). Thus, we should not be surprised to struggle so intensely with sin in our own lives, or to find evil so difficult to root out in the world. Jesus has come to uproot greed and pride, to overthrow injustice and oppression, to defeat sin and death—and this emboldens evil all the more. (The Beginning and the End, 62-63)
Hard to say “Merry Christmas” after that, isn’t it? But all is not grey and grim. Here’s the way I close that chapter:
In reflecting on all these implications of this vision of cosmic conflict, perhaps we can now see an answer to a question that was suggested near the beginning of this chapter: why does John use elements of non-biblical mythic stories to help describe his vision here? The answer we might propose is this: all the great myths of the world—all human stories that attempt to make sense of what is wrong in the world and how things can be made right—find their home in the story of Jesus.
This is certainly not to say that the story of Jesus is itself a “myth” in the sense of being “unhistorical”—remember the way that apocalypses work, using language and imagery symbolically, pointing indirectly through these strange pictures to real events and persons and entities in the world. Rather, this emphasizes that the very real Jesus who came into the world to make right what has gone wrong with humanity and all creation catches up all the hopes and fears of humanity into himself, fulfilling all humanity’s deepest longings and most desperate needs. (The Beginning and the End, 63)
Amen, and amen!