We tend to romanticize what the birth of Jesus was like. It all seems so picturesque to us now: Bethlehem, the manger, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, cute animals, shepherds, the star, and so forth. But the fact is that the birth of Jesus was burdened with many hardships and if we look, it is not hard to see the Passion already prefigured in the birth of Jesus.
I do not write this post to burst any bubbles or simply to be contrary. But I am aware that we set up great expectations for Christmas, that it will be a wonderful, magical time. In some years those dreams come true, but in other years Christmas is difficult. Maybe it is our first Christmas without a loved one, maybe finances trouble us, perhaps we are rushed and hurried and cannot find the gift(s) we want to get for others. Christmas is seldom an “easy” time for any of us. But at some level we have to stop trying to have the perfect Christmas and come to accept the actual Christmas we have.
Christ was not found in a “perfect” Christmas by any means. The first Christmas was difficult at best. Consider the following:
- What Kind of Woman is That! There were many questions likely swirling about due to the circumstances of Jesus’ conception. For Joseph they had been resolved through the message of an angel. But it is unlikely that other family members and townsfolk at Nazareth were as accepting of what had happened. Scripture is silent on these matters but the culture of that time did not easily accept that a young woman was pregnant apart from the marriage bed. There was surely tension, perhaps even some shunning of Mary, and Joseph too for he had agree to take a “woman like that” into his home. Perhaps some of them thought that Joseph too was less than innocent in the whole matter. Some of this is speculative I know but the culture of the time was quite exacting about such matters.
- Terrible Travels! Just prior to Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary receive word that they must travel to Bethlehem due to hastily called census. Mary is almost 9 months pregnant and the trip to Bethlehem is almost 80 miles. The only way to get there was on foot. The terrain in the Holy Land is mountainous. The hills around Nazareth are not little rolling hills, they are like the Appalachian Mountains in size and the terrain only gets steeper and rockier as one gets to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Now these were hardy people and such journeys were not unknown to them. Pious Jews went as often as once a year to Jerusalem (70 Miles from Nazareth) to worship at the Temple. Nevertheless the hardships of such a journey on a woman near to giving birth cannot be underestimated. We often see pictures of Mary riding a donkey. It is unlikely that she actually did. Joseph and Mary were not destitute but they were among the working poor. It is unlikely they could have afforded a donkey for such a journey. It is possible that Joseph was able to pull a small cart upon which Mary could ride along with some of their belongings. But remember the steep hills to which we have referred. Such carts were often more trouble than they were worth. Probably they both walked.
- Bethlehem was No Blessing! After a long and difficult journey of several days Joseph and Mary reached the town of Bethlehem. Now I don’t want to be unkind but let me just make it plain. Bethlehem is no cute “little town of Bethlehem.” It is a run down city set on steep hills. The terrain is rocky. And the Shepherds field was not a grassy rolling pasture. It is a very rocky, hard scrabble land. Even today after all the glory that happened there, the town is still a very poor and run down place. Due to Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the town is largely cut off economically and the poor line the streets begging you to buy olive wood trinkets from them. It is rather a sad place actually. At the time of Jesus’ birth the town was vastly over crowded due to the Census. Huge numbers who had long since left (like Joseph and Mary) had now returned for the count. On my recent trip I took pictures in Bethlehem which you can see here: Bethlehem
- Born like That?!? As they enter town Mary may be experiencing her first labor pains. Joseph with great anxiety seeks a place quickly for her. Surely room could be found for a woman in labor! But no. Surely someone would understand and give their spot over to the couple! But no. Scripture gives us very little detail actually as to the place of Jesus’ birth. We are only told by Luke that Mary laid Jesus in a manger (a feed box for animals) because there was no room for them in an inn. Most moderns think of a wooden stable or barn-like structure. But it was more likely a cave beneath and behind a house where people routinely sheltered their animals. This is the likely place where Jesus was born for this is where mangers are found. Ancient tradition confirms this for the place of Jesus Birth in in the subbasement of the Church of the Nativity and, sure enough, it is a cave. But consider the awful discomfort that this must have caused. We romanticize it but let us be honest, it was damp or dusty (depending on the time of year) and it was smelly. Joseph must have been devastated that he could find nothing better for his wife and newborn Son. Luke hints at the Passion when he tells us that Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes, using the same verb that would later be used to describe how Jesus body was wrapped in linen cloths at his burial. This was no pleasant Hallmark moment for any of the them. It was a difficult time, away from family and the comforts of home, in an unfriendly, unwelcoming and run down city, giving birth in a smelly animal pen. An old Latin song says, O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! (O great mystery and wondrous sign that animals would see the newborn Lord lying in a feed box).
- Strange Visitors! We think of numerous visitors that night but it was probably only the shepherds that first night. Now shepherds were the cowboys of their day. They tended to be a rough sort of crowd. Once again we tend to clean things up a bit. But it is sort of a strange fit that these rough and tumble cowboys of their day should be the ones summoned by the angels to be the first visitors of the Lord of Glory. The magi from the East surely came but not likely that first night for Matthew describes them as finding Jesus and Mary in a “house.” Perhaps the next day or some days later Joseph was able to find lodging and that is where the Magi found them in Bethlehem.
- Flee for your Life! Not long after the birth word comes to Joseph that he must flee to Egypt at once for Herod is seeking to kill the Child. They flee into the night to make the Journey of 150 miles into Egypt.
Well I hope you can see that the first Christmas was anything but idyllic, anything but perfect, anything but comfortable. I do not deny that there is a place for sentimentality but, truth be told, our sentimentality often sets us up for disappointment. We want Christmas to be Hallmark perfect. And then Uncle Joe shows up at Christmas dinner drunk, and son Ben is away in Iraq, Mom died last June, and instead of snow, it is warm. But guess what. Jesus wasn’t found in a perfect Christmas either. If you’re looking for a perfect Christmas, Jesus is not there. He is in the imperfect one. He’s in your actual Christmas not your imagined Christmas. Find him there.