Even though I know a full year in advance that the Christmas holidays are coming, I am inevitably caught off-guard.
Getting behind with Christmas decorating, shopping and baking is one thing. Poor planning for the birth of a child, however, is an entirely different matter. Ordinarily, expectant parents are obsessed with preparations—Lamaze classes, nursery furnishings and trial runs to the hospital.
So why did that first Christmas—an event God scheduled before Creation—have all the marks of poor planning? Did God get caught in the Christmas rush too?
One might easily think so, when the timing of this long-awaited event coincided with a major census, putting Joseph and a very pregnant Mary on the road. Worse yet, Bethlehemites from other parts of the country were pouring into town to register, filling all the inns so there was no place for them to stay. It boggles the mind to think the holy couple took refuge in a stable devoid of basic amenities—heat, water or blankets—not to mention minimum levels of cleanliness or the calming presence and skilled hands of a midwife.
To top it off, a rag-tag band of shepherds (who probably hadn’t bathed in weeks) formed the official welcoming committee. They learned the news in the dead of night, when most people were asleep. No doubt in shock from the terrifying appearance of the angels, yet grasping some sense of the magnitude of what was happening, they at least dropped what they were doing and rushed to see the infant Jesus for themselves.
We would take a dim view of such circumstances if they happened to us. Judging from our Christmas cards, we’ve reconfigured their story into a scene of cozy perfection, complete with “sweet smelling” hay. As a hay fever sufferer, I have a hard time believing in the pleasantness of hay—sweet smelling or not. I wonder if Mary and Joseph would even recognize Christmas, the way we’ve dressed it up.
We may successfully camouflage the misery of that first Christmas. We have a harder time doing that for our own. For a lot of people, the holidays are rough. Depression rates go up along with Christmas decorations. A heavy heart often lies beneath our jolly season’s greetings, and we enter the holiday season with a tinge of dread.
For many of us, this year’s Christmas brings the same old challenge of producing a normal, happy day—some semblance of the life and family we always wanted. Our best efforts are undermined by loneliness, loss, regrets, and dysfunction. No matter how hard we try to be merry, we can’t escape our own brokenness and the imperfections of this fallen world. Not even for Christmas.
In a way, it is fitting for even that first Christmas wasn’t immune to brokenness and sorrow. The joy at Jesus’ birth was mingled with disappointment and isolation. Was this how Mary and Joseph expected events to unfold?
But God is intentional. He makes plans and carries them out. We can be sure that every single aspect of that first Christmas was more carefully thought through and fulfilled than our most perfectly executed Christmas celebration.
We mute the Christmas message when we sugarcoat the raw misery of it all. There’s purpose behind the details, right down to the “No Vacancy” sign at the inn.
Take those shepherds, for example. A lot of Christians think God chose them to demonstrate that Jesus came to the poor and the lowly, which goes to show how clueless we can be about the monumental step down Jesus took to come and live among us. Wouldn’t Jesus have humbled himself just as much and still have come to the poor and lowly if he had been born in Buckingham Palace? After all, we are all impoverished and lowly before God, whether we belong to the House of Windsor or suffer the poverty of Calcutta. So why the shepherds?
As I studied their story, I learned that these weren’t just ordinary shepherds. The flocks pasturing near Bethlehem were destined for temple sacrifices. Shepherds tending the temple flocks were experts in determining the suitability of a lamb for sacrifice. They knew how to spot defects. Nothing was more appropriate than to summon these shepherds to be the first witnesses of the perfect Lamb who would lay down His life for the sins of the world.
The cross was in view, even from the Bethlehem stable. The baby Jesus had come to die—to rescue us from the very brokenness that prevents us from enjoying a perfect Christmas. The words of John the Baptist could have easily come from the lips of the shepherds, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
My experience with stables is limited, I’ll admit. But from what little I do know, I’m still convinced a stable is no place to give birth to a baby.
It is, however, the perfect birthplace for a lamb.
“Look, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world!”