When the angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a baby, he said, ““You will bear a son, and name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High… his kingdom will have no end.”
Christians embrace and repeat this claim about Jesus - that he is great – but when we do this, we’re not simply affirming that Jesus lives up to some external, independent standard of greatness. Rather, what we’re saying is that Jesus embodies greatness in himself, that he sets the standard for what greatness truly is.
This leads to some uncomfortable realizations, because if you look at the life Jesus lived - his prophetic voice and his radical compassion - you see that our common ideas about greatness are quite different from the example Jesus provides.
It seems we get greatness wrong, most of the time.
In his book, “The Road to Character,” David Brooks talks about the difference between ‘resume virtues’ and ‘eulogy virtues’. Resume virtues are the skills and accomplishments we bring to the marketplace - external, material indicators of how successful we are. Net worth, headlines, and names on plaques indicate greatness according to these virtues. Eulogy virtues, by contrast, are the commitments to community, character and spiritual health that a person lives by - the kinds of things that are remembered by friends and family after we’re gone. Testimonies to our honesty, compassion and self-sacrifice are what prove greatness in this paradigm.
It’s important for all of us to ask on a regular basis which set of virtues – Resume or Eulogy - we prioritize in our own lives.
Jesus is called great, by the angel Gabriel, by many writers in the bible and by Christians ever since, but while he’s commonly imagined on a throne, with a big crown, in majesty and glory (a kind of human materialism superimposed on the divine), the life he lived on earth was pretty lean on resume virtues. In our world, he was penniless and always on the move; Jesus was at home everywhere and nowhere. He spent most of his time with the poor and powerless, and he died young.
Jesus lived a profoundly humble life, which began in the care of an unwed teen-aged mother who had no wealth or status, and who laid him in a manger, because they were far from home and had nowhere safe to go.
Christmas reminds us that if we are seeking greatness, we will not find it in wealth, in power over others, or in any sort of self-aggrandizement. We find it in humility, in hospitality, in openness and vulnerability.
The mercy, generosity and expansive welcome that characterize Jesus’ ministry in later years are first brought out by the peacefulness and goodwill of those who gathered at his birth. This is what you see in every nativity scene you pass this time of year. A gathering of humble souls, drawn together in compassion and wonder.
The nativity is a collection of people (and sheep! And cows!) who don’t impress anybody – they couldn’t if they tried, and they don’t care to. But in this moment, gathered around the
The Table is a Christian Church in Davenport, Iowa, pursuing transformation:
From greed toward generosity
From violence toward peacemaking
From isolation toward neighborliness
From fear toward faith
Worship Sundays at 5pm, 102 E. 2nd St., Davenport
Christmas Eve Service, Monday Dec. 24, 5pm
manger, astonished by grace in the cooing of a child, they know everything they will ever need to know of greatness.