I hope that you do not have a happy Christmas. How about that for Christmas cheer? Before you imagine three ghosts visiting me, hear me out. My inspiration comes from Luke. It also comes from Matthew. Normally, we speak in hushed tones of unwed teenage mothers. Yet, here Mary’s age and marital status figure prominently in the Christmas story.
So, when I say that I hope you do not have a happy Christmas, I have your best interest in mind. If Christmas is merely happy, it does not do justice to the biblical story churches have celebrated and acted out throughout Advent. I looked ahead to God being in human form on Christmas day. But, when God came to earth in Bethlehem, it was not like the glossy, fluffy images of the latest iteration of Christmas move.
When God came to Earth, it was real. Mary and Joseph took an arduous journey. They experienced heartless people who slammed doors in their faces. This was the face of need. Now, we have sanitized their struggle singing “Away in a Manger.” Mary’s teenage pregnancy carried the scandalous whiff of infidelity. How did it happen? Even back then, they knew where babies come from, and no one assumed immaculate conception. The story sounds more like Jerry Springer than Hallmark.
When they could not find a room, Mary and Joseph were probably frightened. There might have been times when we have been frightened. At those times, we might have reassured ourselves that things will work out. Maybe, we even knew they would. Yet, until they do, we have anxiety. Mary and Joseph experienced anxiety.
What about the smell. The manger probably smelled. I say ‘probably’ but that is only due to my limited experience in barns. Every barn I have ever visited smelled like a barn.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us about some seriously sinister Christmas presents from some shady sorcerers. Myrrh, for example, is a commodity in the funeral business. We see the symbolism as foretelling Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, if we put ourselves in Mary’s shoes (or, lack thereof—she was very poor), it might feel like opening a beautifully wrapped present and finding embalming fluid. The scene ends with Herod’s infanticide, mothers wailing, and a terrified flight into exile in the desert.
This is the unedited truth of the greatest story ever told. In every sense, it isn’t fun, family entertainment. It is the story of how God came into the world. This is about how God interacts with the world, loves the world, and redeems the world. It is a story with a happy ending. It is a story full of joy, peace, hope, and love. But, it is not happy.
Consider the shepherds. One more ghastly night in the chilly hills of Syria and this motley crew stood in a field. These are not the kinds of people one would invite home for dinner. Suddenly, an angelic host shows up. And, they are singing. The rough and tumble crew of shepherds are terrified.
We have the advantage of hindsight. We are seeing these events after having already heard that it is going to be okay—Jesus will grow up, teach amazing lessons, perform miracles, and be crucified and resurrected. The shepherds were simply going along in an otherwise difficult life when the angels show up. The angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.”
In the mystique of Christmas celebrations, pageantry, and our own tradition, it is easy to miss the significance of the shepherds’ response. They might have been the first ones to get it. They model responding to God. After the angels leave, they do not say, nonchalantly, “Why don’t we check it out?”
The Bible tells us that they went with σπευδω or “haste.” They moved diligently, earnestly, or eagerly. We would not use this word to describe the actions of a group saying, “Let’s go see what happened because we are mildly curious.” Based on the context, the group is scared and they move with fright!
Does the story suddenly get happy? Does it suddenly form into a polished made-for-TV-scene? No. Parents want to keep their babies protected and clean—a hard task if the recovery room is also the home of some farm animals. Sometimes new parents go overboard with their efforts to protect their children.
I remember when we had our first child. As new, inexperienced parents, we required anyone who wanted to hold the baby to wash their hands first. We prohibited anyone who was holding the baby from also holding a hot cup of coffee. It may have been too much, but we just wanted to keep him safe. How could Mary and Joseph do this with a crew of unkempt shepherds showing up at their stable? The shepherds lived with their sheep. They lived outside. The Bible does not mention them stopping off to wash their hands and clean up before visiting the baby.
When these shepherds arrived, they saw the one by whom and through whom all things were made. In that unpretentious, grubby, fear-fueled setting, the shepherds had reached the core of the cosmos. They were gazing into the innermost heart of the universe. God made flesh. God all-bountiful. God all-creative. God-incarnate. This is good news. God who comes as a human to live among us in all our humanity is good for us.
Recognizing the depth of the Christmas story is a challenge. Generally, we like a sanitized Jesus. We like the Christ child in a beautiful, bucolic manger scene. But, let us do away with a shrink-wrapped Jesus. At least in our minds, let us set aside the porcelain baby Jesus. He cannot do justice to the story. A sanitized version of the biblical account cannot begin to touch the gravity of what happened “away in the manger”.
We have to suspend our idea of “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” because if he is like any other baby, he was crying. And, that is good news. In our savior’s cries and tears, we meet his humanity. In his humanity, we can find redemption. The Bible has tidings of great joy, not simply a happy, feel-good Christmas. This is the joy that those gibbering, terrified shepherds experienced. It is profound, full, and life-giving.
I do not know where you are on your journey. I do not know how you feel as you read this. I do not know what brought you to my blog. The great joy of Christmas is not something vaguely sentimental. It is not a feeling within us. It is not like It’s a Wonderful Life and about the angel Clarence getting his wings, though I love that movie.
Christmas is the story of God-incarnate. Something happened at Christmas. It can never be undone. God broke the heavens apart and poured God-self out on the earth. God spoke to the world. It was a helpless and fragile word in the form of a baby in a Bethlehem stable. It was a word of unexpected interruption, a word that establishes for good the difference between the God we would like and the God who actually comes.
In the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I hope you have a Christmas full of joy, peace, hope, and love!