A friend’s dad died this week. Just like that. Literally in an instant. One minute he is breathing, living, relating to his family, shopping, planning for Christmas. The next minute he is in eternity. With God. But away from his family. At Christmas no less, the time that you want your family to be together, the time that you want to be filled with joy and peace, the time that you want life to make sense…if even for a moment.
As I thought about that this week, I realized that we often talk about the danger of a commercialized Christmas. Christmas turned into a money-making, spend yourself into debt, get more stuff commercial holiday…totally removed from the heart and meaning of Christ’s birth.
But there is another more subtle danger that is sometimes easier for us to fall into. A sanitized Christmas. Christmas turned into a Hallmark card with a milky white baby resting peacefully in a straw bed. Cute animals peering in adoration. Clean shepherds on their knees. A placid Joseph and Mary sitting next to their makeshift cradle. And halos sitting on everybody’s heads.
A beautiful picture. Idyllic. Peaceful. Serene. But is it real?
I think of Luke’s short comment about Jesus’ birth. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn (2:7).
No room in the inn. A man with his pregnant wife on the verge of giving birth can’t find a place to stay. They were out-of-towners, arriving at a time when the small town of Bethlehem was overrun with people for the government census. Moods had to be strained. Space was limited. It was every man for himself. And Joseph arrived late to the game.
And so, stressed, tired, and probably scared to death, Joseph does the best he can. He finds an animal stall perhaps in a nearby cave. That is where his wife will deliver their first child.
I grew up with cows and chickens in the backyard. I know that where there are animals, there is lots of dung. Lots of flies. Lots of stink. We never gave a bath to our cows.
Mary goes into labor in a barn…with only her husband, the carpenter, to help her deliver.
Alone. Ostracized. In pain. And nobody seems to care.
There is no indication that Mary’s labor was easier because she bore the Savior of the world. The birthing process had to be painful. That was the curse of Adam’s sin (cf. Gen. 3:16). The One who would bear our pain brought pain on that night.
Joseph would be the only one to help Mary through her painful labor. With only the animals watching. And the flies buzzing around.
This baby would be born in the most unsanitized of conditions.
She laid him in a manger. After the delivery, Joseph scrambles to find whatever he can. Supplies were limited. He grabs a feeding trough, also known as a manger, dumps out the morsels of food and fills it with whatever clean hay he can find. The umbilical cord is cut with an old knife that he has in his bag.
She wrapped Him in swaddling cloths. Strips of cloth. Mary and Joseph have very few clean clothes but they take what they have and tear it into smaller strips so that they can wrap the baby tightly, warmly. The same process used to wrap a dead body is used to wrap their newborn baby. The baby who was born to die.
The first and perhaps only visitors that night (the wise men came much later) are a group of shepherds. Not the clean shaven guys with the nice white and blue robes and the cute little lamb in their arms. No, the rough guys who hadn’t bathed in weeks, if not months. Considered unclean by the Jews. Smelly. Outcasts. They are the ones who show up to welcome the child and provide some brief companionship and comfort to the new, tired parents.
Blood. Stench. Dirt. Dung. Flies.
Alone. Unwelcome. Ostracized.
Pain. Labor. Life…and reminders of death.
Not the picture that we normally have of Christmas. How would you paint that on a Hallmark card? What would it say on the inside? “Hope your Christmas is better than the experience of these people.”
But there is real hope in the unsanitized Christmas.
Jesus Christ was not born to make our world a little better, to make the winter months more bearable, to make life and death a little more tolerable. He wasn’t born into a world with a few problems needing improvement.
Jesus was born into a world of sin…a world of pain, sorrow, stench, betrayal, rejection, dung, flies, and death…a world separated from God. A world without hope. A world needing a Savior.
You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
In the unsanitized Christmas we see two things.
We see sin. The cancer of creation. The rebellion from our Creator. The selfishness that courses through our veins. We have no room for God. We want our own way. We want God to bow to us. And all of creation groans under the weight of sin’s curse. The world is not the way it is supposed to be. We are not the way we are supposed to be. And death seems to have the final word.
And we see Jesus. “Jehovah saves.” God in the act of salvation.
His birth was God invading our world.
His death was God bearing our sin.
His resurrection was God conquering our enemy, death.
And His return will be God wiping away our tears.
Even the tears of Christmas…when we miss our loved ones the most.