When I think about the Christmas story, I envision a peaceful, clear night. There is a little shed filled with hay and baby Jesus is sleeping soundly, snuggled in a comfy blanket in the crevice of a feeding trough. I imagine that Mary and Joseph are also there, overwhelmed and exhausted but in a state of pure bliss together after their son was finally born. An especially bright star is shining over them, and there is a calm and quiet that takes over the cool evening.
Maybe you imagine something similar, or maybe you are less idealistic in your wonderings about that event. What I want to believe about that day or evening or whenever Jesus was actually born is that there was comfort and peace and serenity. I mean, isn’t that what Jesus always brings?
Actually, I’m beginning to see things differently.
My change in perspective happened when I listened to a sermon at my church. A few teachers from the church gave mini-sermons; each one was on a different person or group of people in the common nativity scene. The first was about Mary, the second Joseph, and the third was about the wise men. What caught my attention during these sermons about the birth of Jesus was not the peace and joy that is so often depicted, but the upheaval, the pain, and the distress that him coming into the world actually brought. I know this sounds almost blasphemous, but I think that’s just because we have gotten too caught up in our own romanticized ideas and opinions of what a life with Jesus should look and feel like.
Behind the Scenes of the Nativity Scene
When the angel came and told Mary that she was to carry a baby in her womb even though she was a virgin, I’m sure Mary understood the consequence of being found pregnant outside of marriage. Her external world was about to be rocked. Shame, condemnation, hate, and probably even some threats were thrown at her. Not to mention that according to the law she was to be literally tossed out of her parents’ home and killed in the streets (see Deuteronomy 22:20).
Yet, she was willing.
Willing to bear the child and bear the burdens, whatever they may be.
In addition, I have often thought about why God seemed to have no plan for Mary and Joseph once they arrived in Bethlehem. Surely God could have kept a room vacant in one of the inns for them. Surely He could have timed the official Census a little better for the sake of Mary who was very pregnant and extremely uncomfortable. And since she agreed to carry and deliver this baby, at least God could have given her a comfortable place to rest after their long journey.
I wonder why He didn’t seem to be concerned that Mary was in labor and exhausted and hungry and probably feeling a lot of stress. I wonder why He wasn’t worried about the germs and animal feces in the manger, and how newborns should be protected from that sort of thing. I also wonder why He didn’t make a single person in town give up their bed for that sweet girl to give birth on? I know He could have done a lot of things differently.
So why didn’t He?
Joseph also had to yield his life and reputation and plans in all of this. Joseph became the legal father of a son that wasn’t his. When Joseph named Jesus when he was born, he took full responsibility to raise him as his own. And his life was no longer his own. When the angel came to Joseph to warn him about Herod’s plan to kill the child, he gathered his family and immediately left Israel in the middle of the night and began their journey to become foreigners in Egypt. It was a tumultuous time for them. They had to travel hundreds of miles with no plan, to a place they didn’t know, while also in fear for the life of their child. Was this really God’s plan for their lives?
And maybe you’ve asked God something similar: Is this really Your plan for my life? Why does everything have to be so hard? Is this what you have in store for me?
What I hate and question most about the nativity story is the rage and envy that came upon King Herod when Jesus was born. The wise men came to him asking where the new king was (which honestly doesn’t seem very wise to me) and when Herod’s trick to get them to tell him where the baby was born had failed, he fumed. He ordered all the little boys who were two years and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas to be killed.
My heart breaks as I read this – and I know God’s did too when it happened. I think about the anguish of those parents. Why did this have to happen? Their sweet baby boys were gone, and on the surface, it looks like it happened because Jesus came into the world. I know I would have wondered and questioned and struggled to see the goodness of God in that moment. I have gone through some hardships that pale in comparison, and I still fight to have the proper perspective. We all go through really difficult things. There are unexplained deaths, inhumane injustices that seem to go unpunished, starvation, prejudice, millions of orphans, abuse, depression…the list goes horribly on and on.
Because of all of this, the lie I am tempted to believe is that He doesn’t care about the circumstances of our lives.
But after walking with Him for many years, I know that’s just not true. He cares deeply about our personal lives and what we go through. Maybe He is just showing us in this story that even if we are perfectly in His will, we still live in a broken world and things won’t always be easy.
And it all comes back to Jesus.
This little baby became the man who became the sacrifice that would rescue us from death. He became the ransom to restore all that was stolen from us. He became the sword that will end all injustice. He became the light that will break through all darkness. He became the peace that will end all wars. He became the calm in the middle of our storms.
On this side of heaven, life is bittersweet.
And living in the tension of grief and goodness is not easy, but learning how to accept it is necessary to receiving all this life has for us.
This is what the Nativity has taught me. Though I still desire peaceful circumstances for me and my family, what I know I have is the Prince of Peace living inside of me regardless of external difficulties. Though I still want to live a comfortable life, for the rest of my life I get to be held by the Comforter who knows my pain like no one else. And though I still question why some things are the way they are, I know only a Good Father would give His Son to rescue and redeem a hurting world.