The nativity scenes you see in front yards typically look pretty similar to each other – the baby, Mary and Joseph, some animals, maybe the shepherds and wise men are there. They’re not likely to include a great red dragon looming over Mary’s shoulder, even though that’s how the book of Revelation tells the story.
In Revelation 12, we meet a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The woman is pregnant and just about to give birth when the “great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns” appears. The dragon sweeps a third of the stars out of the sky to the earth with a whip of his tail and then positions himself in front of the woman to devour her child the moment he’s born. But alas, the dragon is unsuccessful. The baby boy is born, delivered to the throne of God, and the woman flees to the wilderness, with the dragon unable to get to either of them.
That’s Christmas in the book of Revelation.
It’s impossible not to hear notes of Matthew’s nativity account here. Mary and Joseph flee the edict of the psychotic king Herod, whose misplaced instinct for survival has made him a murderer of baby boys. But they flee successfully and Jesus is born. Yes, Revelation 12 gives us different pictures with which to understand the story of Mary, Jesus, and Herod. But Revelation can never be reduced to a simple one-to-one allegory, either. In Revelation 12, we hear the story of Mary and Jesus and Herod, but we also hear anew the story of Israel fleeing the psychotic Pharaoh, escaping into the wilderness. Or we hear anew the story of Eve and the serpent. The serpent is promised by God that he will strike a blow against Eve’s offspring, but will be struck down by her offspring in the process.
The Bible has a way of telling the same story in different ways at different times. Now Revelation gifts us with its own apocalyptic version of the story. “Apocalyptic” means to reveal, to pull back the curtain, to show something for what it really is. And Revelation 12 tells us a familiar story with its apocalyptic flair in order to reveal Herod and Pharaoh for what they really are – agents of the dragon, the animating force of all greed, abuse, and division in the world.
And yet, within just a few verses, the dragon is humiliated. When the child is born, the narrator quotes Psalm 2, which originally says he shall “break” the nations with “a rod of iron.” But Revelation tweaks it a bit. Instead of breaking the nations, we’re told this child will “shepherd” the nations with a rod of iron. Revelation is clear from start to finish – God’s victory is won by the Lamb, by gentleness, by self-sacrifice. This is a story in which the ferocity of a dragon loses to the meekness of a Lamb who shepherds the nations.
The Christmas gospel according to Revelation is the audacity to proclaim that the birth of a shepherd is the downfall of the dragon. The dragon has no power over us. He may be the animating force behind all greed, abuse and division, but his power is an illusion. The truth has been revealed. It’s in a baby in a manger that we see the victory of God. May this audacious, apocalyptic Christmas gospel take hold of us.