As we grow up, most of us learn the basics of life. One of those basics is that we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. While there are other things we sense—pain, temperature, hunger—most of those are related to the classic five senses that we usually learn.
But there is a unique effect that sometimes occurs where the triggering of one sense leads to the involuntary triggering of another sense. One of the most well-known incidents of this was recorded in 1690 by the English philosopher John Locke who made a report about a blind man who said he experienced the color scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet. That effect in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense is called synesthesia.
The story of Jesus’ birth is an experience of multi-sensory stimulation causing an experience like synesthesia. As the story goes, Mary and Joseph both have angelic appearances, during a vision at daytime for Mary and during a dream at night for Joseph.
Those angelic appearances overwhelm them and are enough to help them believe that God is doing something new: God is rescuing the world from the powers of evil and sin by coming in the midst of ordinary people like them in the flesh. And all through those angelic appearances burst sights, sounds, and feelings that overload the senses with God’s purposes:
The angel tells Mary that “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
Elizabeth sees Mary pregnant and feels the baby in her own womb jump and tumble in expectant joy (Luke 1:41).
Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, says: “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness” and that God will “guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79).
But that night when Jesus was born, after Mary and Joseph’s long journey from Galilee in the north to Joseph’s ancestral hometown of Bethlehem, both Mary and Joseph experience multiple senses automatically and fully engaged.
(Read Luke 2:6-7)
They hold the baby Messiah in their arms. They feel the warmth of animal presence and the newborn life in that stable-cave. They hear the first cries of this baby, named Jesus, which means the Lord God saves.
Sound, Vision, Touch
One of the earliest descriptions of what Jesus’ birth means for humanity comes in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John, one of Jesus’ first followers, describes Jesus with three sensory images: the sound of a word, the vision of light, and the physical touch of a dwelling place.
(Read John 1:1, 4-5, 13)
Jesus is a word from God speaking into human ears about what God is like. Jesus is a light from God showing to human eyes how God is bringing into this dark world. Jesus is a dwelling place—the tabernacle or house—in the midst of the world, where God can be found and touched.
Hearing, seeing, touching—all engaged simultaneously. The presence of God in flesh is so strong that one sense triggers another to give human beings a complete sensory overload of the presence of God. Can we hear him? Can we see him? Can we feel him?
Isaiah the prophet talked about this overloading, synesthetic experience of God when in two different times he spoke:
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isa. 9:2)
“I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” (Isa. 42:16)
Darkness is overcome with light. The places that feel rough are made smooth. And God is so palpably present in the midst of his people that we can touch him.
When Mary and Joseph heard Jesus, saw Jesus, touched Jesus, they experienced sensory overload as the reality that God drew near.
Jesus Brings a Word from God that Would Speak Truth Unlike Anything Else
That’s why even to this day people who do not like church or a lot of things about Christianity still are invariably drawn to Jesus. There is no teaching like his. But the Word from God spoke just as powerfully through who Jesus was. His way of living amongst the everyday people of the world, speaks to everyday people like us. Even more, God’s truth in Jesus strikingly speaks the truth that God would come near in flesh. Could it be?
Jesus Brings Light from God in the Midst of the Darkness
All around us we experience darkness in our personal lives through financial difficulties, relational tensions, loneliness, or the pain of suffering. All around us we experience the darkness of divisions between ethnic groups, anger over injustice, the dreaded conflicts between nations, and the sense that we are lost and out of control on an endlessly spinning merry-go-round of chaos.
Jesus shines through that personal and corporate darkness with a brilliance that tells us darkness will not ultimately overcome light and goodness. His life shines the light of God’s care and presence. His death shines the light of God’s selfless love. And his resurrection shines the light of God’s hope.
Jesus Brings a Touch from God in the Midst of Rough Places
Let’s face it: life is rough sometimes. We deal with the dark valleys of loved one’s deaths, the shuddering grip of cancer in our bodies, asphyxiating systems of prejudice, highs and lows in our career path, the surging inner turmoil of our souls, and so much more.
Jesus’ presence tangibly manifests the care of God into the rough places we experience. And, with God’s palpable presence in the flesh of Messiah Jesus, we begin to feel both the smoothing out of rough places and the awareness that when “the Lord is our shepherd, we lack nothing” (Ps. 23:1).
Can we hear Jesus? Can we see Jesus? Can we feel Jesus?
Beyond Mary and Joseph, there were three clear responses to Jesus in the early part of his life that help us understand what it looks like to let our own senses be overwhelmed by the synesthetic encounter with Jesus the Messiah.
Three Responses to Jesus
Will we be like the shepherds and let the light of Christ bring a humming new message into our lives? Will we run across all the rough places of our world to beat a smooth, straight path of faith to Jesus? Will you and I tell him today that he is not only the Savior of the world but our Savior?
Will we be like the magi, who were confused enough and interested enough by Jesus to go on the long journey of searching, of questing for the new king? Will we give him the tangible treasures of our lives—our minds, our time, our attention, our resources—as a response to the light that reaches even to the parts of the world and our lives that may seem distant from God?
Or will we be like Herod, who rages with fury and fear before a God whose word speaks, whose light shines, and whose presence touches our lives. Will you or I push back, aggressively or passively, upon the God who invades our domain as the light of the world in Jesus?
Because if Jesus comes from God, and if Jesus speaks Gods’ word, and if Jesus shines God’s light, and if Jesus brings God’s touch, there is no other thing we can do but be completely overwhelmed in our senses by him.
May we see his light so clearly that it makes our ears ring with the good news that God is here to touch and dwell in the midst of needy humanity.
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.