For two millennia, the birth of Jesus Christ has been observed and celebrated. Over time, it seems a great deal of varnish has built up over the original characters and circumstances. Even in just my 31 Christmases so far, a certain familiar indifference creeps closer each year. As the peripheral concerns grow in number and importance, my view of “the reason for the season” grows blurrier.
To combat this, and salvage the right idea, I want to revisit the familiar story. How was the birth of Jesus foretold? How did he come into the world? I pray God will allow me to see the details we have in the Scriptures with renewed clarity and excitement for the wonderful truths they were meant to convey.
A song by Nichole Nordeman comes to mind. In ‘Real,’ she sings:
“I am real
Don’t turn me into memory or myth
Let me be real”
As it seems to me, the fact that God saw fit to take on human flesh and become a real man compels us to see the figures who surrounded him in human flesh as well, at least as much as we can. They were real men and women, warts and all. We learn more about who God is by realizing this fact. After all, we ourselves are real men and women, and we want to know and worship a real God rather than content ourselves with speculations and figments of imagination.
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
First, how old is Mary? By Jewish custom, she could have been betrothed as young as 12, but most Christian historians speculate she was 15 or 16. Who knows? Joseph might have run for the Alabama U.S. Senate seat.
But why is Mary troubled at the angel’s greeting? As I read, I picture Zooey Deschanel in Elf asking Buddy to please stop talking to her. Yet Mary is respectful, and she asks a very prudent logistical question of the angel. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel announces that God is going to do not one, but two things which should be impossible. First, he’s going to send the Messiah into the world through a young, as-yet unmarried virgin. Second, he’s going to send the herald for that Messiah – the man we will later know as John the Baptist – into the world through a barren elderly woman.
Considering that Mary is not only a virgin, but also as-yet unmarried, and probably rather young by today’s standards, I would say she takes Gabriel’s news in stride. In her day and age – perhaps not so different from the Middle East today – such a combination of circumstances as she now faced would prove extremely dangerous. Even if she might avoid death by stoning, she would probably become a pariah.
Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, Resolved To Divorce Her Quietly
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Consider Joseph. Joseph is a direct descendent of King David, and he surely knows it. I should think a man of such a prestigious line would be deeply concerned about his honor and reputation; or even if he was not, his family and friends certainly would be on his behalf.
You can be sure it was not a pleasant or enjoyable conversation when Joseph discovered his bride-to-be was pregnant ahead of the big day. And I do not envy what that must have been like for Mary, innocent or not.
Yet we see something of the character of this man Joseph in his decision just prior to the angel speaking with him. Joseph could have destroyed Mary for, as it would have appeared, being faithless and betraying his trust and embarrassing him. Yet Joseph made up his mind to be gracious and discrete. He would not throw Mary to the wolves. He would divorce her quietly and be done with it.
Yet even when the angel appeared to him in a dream, Joseph could have dismissed both the dream and the angel appearing to him in it as a figment of his imagination. I think now of how Ebenezer Scrooge responds to the apparition of his partner Marley.
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Thankfully, Joseph trusts and obeys rather than scoffing and disbelieving.
There Was No Place For Them In The Inn
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Was this an instance of poor planning?
I think of taking my family to Yellowstone a few years ago. July and August are peak tourist season. I did not know half the 3-million annual visitors come during those months. Yet here I was, driving my family to Yellowstone at the end of July. And I had not made any hotel reservations.
Some scholars believe the word “inn” should be translated here as “guest room.” It is more likely Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives of Joseph’s in Bethlehem than at a Best Western type establishment.
Regardless, it does not appear Joseph and Mary were given the pre-eminent place of honor. Could this have been because Joseph married a pregnant young woman?
We sanitize the situation, but we ought not to. God took on humanity. He was birthed messily like you and I. Then a literal feed trough became his makeshift crib. I feel like CPS would be called on Mary and Joseph if they tried that today.
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.
The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? And where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
It pleased God to enter the world by impossible, or at least highly implausible, methods and circumstances. Yet in 31-years of hearing the nativity story, not much of my attention has focused on the trying time this would be for Mary and Joseph. Yet I think that has been an unfortunate oversight.
The birth of Jesus was as striking an example as could be of God choosing what is foolish to shame the wise, what is weak to shame the strong, and what is low and despised to bring to nothing the things that are. Yet we miss this if we gloss over the real difficulties and humanity of those God used and interacted with.
If we were only looking at the human side of the equation, we might balk. Yet because of what God did, we think of that manger a lot like we now think of the cross. What could, and probably would have otherwise been a mark of shame and humiliation became instead a symbol of God’s love and grace triumphing over sin and death because of his great love for us. And that, if you think about it, is really rather tremendous.
Moreover, I think it frees us up to stop being so high-strung around the holidays. When I consider how the original event we remember on Christmas actually went, and how God chose to reveal himself that way, it makes me think that perhaps my lot is not to achieve a great Christmas by the standards of the world. Perhaps instead my question each Christmas should be: ‘Lord, how can I be real and show people how real you are?