This may sound strange, but I think we have made Christmas too beautiful.
When we think of Christmas, many of us call to mind idyllic images of softly falling snow, horse-drawn sleighs, glowing candles, glittering lights, roaring fireplaces, fluffy Christmas trees and happy carolers. We picture Jesus, Mary and Joseph gazing tranquilly into each other’s faces, surrounded by cute animals, adoring shepherds and regal-looking wise men presenting their gifts, all softly illuminated by the ray of a shining star.
But nothing about Jesus’s birth was outwardly beautiful. The story of his birth is raw and quite sad in some ways.
The first Christmas wasn’t very beautiful.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Jesus’s birth, spiritually speaking, was beautiful. Yet, Jesus was born on the dirt floor of an unsanitary stable, barn or cave that would have smelled of straw, dust and animal feces. He was wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough.
That God Almighty would humble himself and become human to dwell with us on the earth he created is more than difficult to comprehend. But to come like this, as an infant, entirely dependent on a young mother for nourishment and an inexperienced father for protection?
Commentator R. Kent Hughes writes:
"It was clearly a leap down — as if the Son of God rose from his splendor, stood poised at the rim of the universe irradiating light, and dove headlong, speeding through the stars over the Milky Way to earth’s galaxy...where he plunged into a huddle of animals. Nothing could be lower."
The birth of Jesus is not a rags-to-riches story. It is a riches-to-rags story. As Apostle Paul writes, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).
For me, the circumstances of Jesus’s birth don’t detract from the Nativity story. Instead, they demonstrate the great sacrifice Jesus made to come to us. The invisible became visible; the infinite became finite; God became a man — to save us.
Sometimes, our Christmases can be ugly.
If you’re like me, you have a somewhat messy family dynamic. Often during the holidays, we interact with extended family that we haven’t seen for a while. And sometimes, those interactions are distressing or painful.
Maybe your parents divorced. Or perhaps you have been divorced or abandoned. Maybe you lost a loved one. What is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year" is, for many, the most difficult, stressful or depressing time of the year.
Jesus was no stranger to familial dysfunction or conflict. Some of his ancestors were prostitutes, cheats, adulterers and liars — and one was a murderer. Jesus was born to a teenage mother who was found to be pregnant with a child who was not her fiance’s (of course, Joseph later learned Mary’s child was from the Holy Spirit). And when Jesus grew up, he was mocked by his siblings.
We can take comfort in the fact that Jesus was born into brokenness so that he might bring wholeness.
The conflict of Christmas
Maybe you’re dreading Christmas instead of looking forward to it because you know that Christmas will be a time of conflict.
For many, Christmastime can bring up feelings of grief and loss alongside the joy and merriment. I am all too familiar with the unsettling conflict that arises in our hearts at this time of year. I lost my son Christopher in an accident in July of 2008. Since then, the joy of Christmas has mingled with the nostalgia and grief of loss. I have joy and hope in the knowledge that I will be reunited with my son in eternity, but the present pain persists.
Jesus understands. His life was steeped in conflict from birth as the shadow of the cross lay over the trajectory of his life on earth.
When Mary took her newborn son to be dedicated at the temple, a man there named Simeon had a message from the Lord. He said to Mary, "A sword is going to pierce through your own soul" (Luke 2:35). He was essentially saying, "Mary, this is going to be painful, this thing that is going to happen." Why? Because Jesus would one day die for the sins of the world.
Jesus came with a purpose: He was born to die.
We don’t like to think about that at Christmastime, do we? We like to picture the sweet, innocent "babe in the manger," cooing and dozing peacefully. And it’s worthwhile to reflect on that. But we mustn’t forget why he came. He was born to die so that we might live. Jesus took upon himself the curse that should have been ours.
The real gift of Christmas, if we will receive it, is not what we find under our trees. It is the gift that Jesus gave for our sins. Jesus died so we can live. Jesus was born so we might be born again. He left his home in Heaven so that we might have a home in Heaven.
As we look at our world today, we realize that part of the promise of Isaiah 9:6-7 has not yet been fulfilled. The Son has been given. The child has been born. But he has not yet taken the government upon his shoulders. We do not yet have peace with justice. But the good news is that there will come a day when Jesus will return. He will establish his kingdom on this earth, where there will be no more sorrow or pain or sickness.
Jesus came so that we could come to him. He came to forgive us of our sins, to give us purpose and meaning and to give us the hope of heaven beyond the grave.
And that is why Christmas is beautiful.