Thursday, December 17, 2015

Was the First Christmas Really So Heavenly?

We think of Christmas as a time of special beauty, a time of glory. The mystery of the incarnation — God taking human form in the baby Jesus — inspires in us a sense of wonder. Because this idea of God’s becoming man is so extraordinary, we feel it’s appropriate to celebrate Christmas with all the glitter and sparkle and tinselly trappings we can muster. Our Christmas cards are full of lovely pictures of angel choirs, peaceful villages, reverent manger pageants, and gleaming stars. Somehow we feel the first Christmas must have been such a special, “holy” time.

Our favorite carols reflect that sentiment. “There’s a Song in the Air” as angels “touch their harps of gold.” “All is calm, all is bright.” Bethlehem’s “deep and dreamless sleep” is undisturbed, for “born the king of angels,” “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

Was it really that way, that first Christmas? Was it really so heavenly, so ethereal, so glorious? Let’s think for a moment about the familiar Gospel story of the people and events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Think of what people were doing as the story unfolds:

— A doubting priest loses his ability to speak.
— A young woman learns of her unexpected pregnancy.
— Her startled husband considers getting a divorce.
— People travel for miles in order to pay their taxes.
— A foreign emperor’s troops occupy their land.
— Shepherds have to work all night in the open field.
— A baby is born in a stable because the inn has no vacancy.
— Foreign dignitaries are trudging across a barren desert.
— A suspicious ruler slaughters innocent children.

No, the birth of Jesus wasn’t all glitter and glory. It didn’t occur under peaceful, benign circumstances. It wasn’t at all like the beautiful scenes on our Christmas cards. The birth of the Son of God took place in the midst of some very ordinary situations. Jesus was born into a harsh environment, where people faced difficulty and deprivation, where they had to struggle to get along.

But that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? A God who loves us wouldn’t come to us covered with forbidding glory, shielding himself from our struggles and putting on a fa├žade of peaceful complacency. A God who loves us would come just as Jesus came, in the midst of the ordinary grind of our daily existence. He would come to say, “I’m taking on your humble life, in order to raise it up to my kind of life. I’m taking on human nature so you can become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). I’m coming to you as Immanuel, ‘God with us,’ so that through him you can come to me and belong to my family.”

We do celebrate, yes. We do cover Christmas with glory and glad song, because of what Christmas means: God with us, Immanuel; “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). That’s a truth we can’t ignore, and it’s right that we should celebrate it because of the difference it makes in our lives today. But let’s always remember, too, that God is with us even in the everyday humdrum of life when things look dull and ordinary and even tedious and hard. For Messiah Jesus first came to us in that very same kind of world.