We had been married one year when we moved from our hometown in upstate New York to Oregon where Mike attended college. That Christmas in 1976, far away from everything familiar, we were poor, newly married students on an incredibly restricted budget. I found a job, in a craft store and with access to do it yourself supplies at a discount, purchased molds, cold plaster and acrylic paints. We made our own Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Shepherd Boy, sheep and Wise Men and I painstakingly painted each piece as Mike made a rough stable out of scrap wood and tree bark. Many years later, though chipped and glued in places, this nativity still reminds us of our Savior’s humble beginnings as well as our own.
Once again, the nativity set has been brought from its’ box in the storage closet. As I carefully unwrap each figure, memories of thirty-some Christmases flood my mind and tug at my heart. My nativity is cozy and serene, as most of us imagine it; Mary and Joseph smiling in a perfectly clean barn, the baby cooing happily inside a soft pile of straw while shepherds and wise men mull about whispering prayers of devotion and words of adoration over the child as sheep stand guard near the manger. I put all the figures in their customary place and begin to wonder how many times I have missed the stark reality of the birth of Jesus with my comfy stable scene. Although there were many wonderful and miraculous moments surrounding the birth of Jesus, maybe it's about time for a Christmas reality check.
Here is a small sampling of what the first Christmas really looked like:
•Mary, a young woman losing her reputation as a virgin, in a time when women were killed for doing so, then trying to convince her family, friends and neighbors that it was God's doing. “Sure Mary, now we’ve heard everything!”
•Joseph, a man preparing to bring home a bride in all the tradition, honor and celebration of a Hebrew engagement and wedding, suddenly faced with the shock that she had been unfaithful to him. Under the circumstances, they probably had to forgo the joyful wedding celebration they had been planning and marry quietly.
•The shame and reproach on both families, as Mary's belly became obviously large, with everyone believing the couple did not have the proper restraint to wait and had to fabricate an outlandish story to cover their indiscretion.
•A long and difficult trip, from Nazareth to Bethlehem to pay taxes (About 80 miles, most likely walking or on a donkey, while pregnant. And we complain? At least we can pay ours by mail or online).
• Giving birth to their first child in a stable far from home and away from the support and help of family and friends.
•Running for their lives to Egypt when they hear of King Herod’s plan to find and kill Jesus.
Jesus arrived on this earth right smack in the middle of every circumstance and emotion we experience: reproach, shame, gossip, fear, worry, difficulty, uncertainty and inconvenience. There must have been moments when Mary wondered if she heard right. Is this really God’s Son or was I dreaming about that angel? Shouldn’t having God’s child should make life easier, bring less pain, heartache and difficulty?
No. The ultimate plan was for Immanuel to truly be God With Us in every way possible. Our peaceful nativity scenes and misconceptions of the first Christmas often cause us to overlook the incredible human difficulty and divine sacrifice of this event. Christ came in a way so opposite of what the people of his day envisioned, most did not recognize him. The prophets had long foretold the coming of the Messiah and every Hebrew boy and girl understood He could come in their lifetime. But they, like us, with limited comprehension of God's ways, pictured Him arriving in the way all kings come, born of royalty into a physical kingdom, reigning from a palace and conquering over every evil ever perpetrated against God's chosen ones. They did not understand His kingdom was one of righteousness, peace and joy and only those of great faith knew He had arrived at all.
Our own culture tends to paint Christmas as some dreamy, romantic, Hollywood event with 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire', 'Walking in a winter wonderland' and 'From now on our troubles will be miles away', threaded through the songs we love. We dream of smiling families dressed in their holiday finest, crooning words of encouragement and love to each other around an elaborate dinner table or Christmas tree and well behaved children patiently waiting to open another gift, saying thank you every time another round of wrapping paper is removed.
Media and advertisers make Christmas a feel-good occasion too, creating euphoria and lofty expectations, then when our own experience doesn't measure up to these illusions, we are completely deflated and depressed. Christmas isn’t about a romantic, nostalgic feeling, as wonderful as that may be, but about Jesus diving into our chaos and shame to rescue us and show us a better way to live. He came to this planet, wore a robe of skin and traveled from the nativity to the cross so we would know without hesitation; God is with us, always and in everything. Whatever life throws at us also belongs to Him. He has tasted, felt and touched it so we can trust Him in and with all of it.
Immanuel, God with me and you!
Matthew 1:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).