Growing up in a Christian family, I have read the birth story of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke my whole life. It is a comforting and familiar story as much as it is a great reminder of why Christians celebrate Christmas. I just finished a beautiful jigsaw puzzle of the manger scene complete with animals, shepherds, and wise men with an angel hovering over the holy family. It is the same type of depiction of Christ’s birth that we find on Christmas cards, lighting up yards and displayed on shelves worldwide however it certainly cannot be not an accurate display of the first-century story. I believe the real story was much messier.
In order to better to understand the commitment God made to the world through the baby Jesus, I think it is a fun exercise imagining myself in the midst of the manger scene watching the biblical text unfold. A good place to start is walking alongside the expecting parents to Bethlehem. Think about Mary, nine months pregnant, riding a donkey with little or no padding for comfort. Finally we reach the only place available to the family, a stable full of animals, hay and the pungent smell of animal waste. Remember the favorite children’s Christmas song “Away in a Manger” which describes a warm and fuzzy scene unfolding around a contented little babe. I have spent a great deal of time living on a farm, feeding and caring for animals and a barn would not be a place I would choose to have a baby. Trust me, it stinks and it’s dirty! The hay smells great but… Have you also given any thought to Mary giving birth with only her betrothed to assist her. Remember they had not yet been intimate with each other so think about how uncomfortable it might have been for Mary to trust Joseph through her pain and giving birth. The fascinating details of this story gives us a fuller and deeper understanding of God, coming to us in human form, a baby, born in a humble stable not as a king but as a servant to poor unwed parents. God’s Son came to us in a stinky barn, with little or no soap and water and wrapped in the what ever Mary had handy. I am also pretty sure there were no halos hovering over the holy family shining a soft light into the darkness.
So you might be asking why are all of these detail are so important to us? It’s a good question. I believe that by entering into the text and imagining the scene unfold in all of its messiness, helps us to focus on the holy family and the miracle of Christ’s birth. At Christmas time, it is easy to get distracted with buying gifts, holiday celebrations, tree decorating and programs, and we can lose sight of the reason Christmas is so special to Christians. I am cognizant that people who are not Christians still celebrate this holiday with the same fervor as the rest of us. That’s ok- we all celebrate differently. But for me, the manger is special because it is where God came to live with us, be like us as a servant not a king. Jesus was born to parents who did not have their act together and yet managed to give birth to a healthy baby boy, surrounded by animals and giving the world a precious gift. Listen to these words of a young faithful Mother, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name,”’ (Lk 1:46-49). It was a very holy messy night!