There weren’t any Christmas trees or carols in the air, but pain, oppression, and poverty on the very first Christmas Eve. There were no three kings present in the first Christmas, and there was no star shining down on the manger. The reality of Christmas is not as cute as you see in the Christmas cards. Christmas is not a myth, not a tradition, not a dream; it was a historical event that took place in the Middle Eastern region, involving real people with real emotions, real hardships, and struggles of lives. Our society is filled with unnecessary, insignificant, and meaningless things that swallowed up the reality of Christmas. Once, wise men and shepherds came to worship Jesus. Today we have wild parties and the babe of Bethlehem has been replaced by a fat huckster called Santa.
So many people have missed the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps the problem is not whether they remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but that the story they know is nothing like the story that Matthew and Luke tell about the birth of Christ and seems to distort or to leave out essential elements of the Nativity narrative. Today the Christmas story is more influenced by filmmakers, painters, storytellers, and illustrators than the Gospel writers. Christmas narratives are co-opted by alternate stories, they get swamped by noisy advertisements and fictional characters. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes the emotional desires and financial expectations of the people. Jingle Bells, Frosty and stories about the “magic” of Christmas robs the sting of this real historical event by removing its scandalous elements.
FOUR Forgotten realities in Christmas
An unexplained teen pregnancy
The story begins with the angelic announcement to Mary about the startling news that God had chosen her to serve as the mother of the Savior of the world. Who would believe a 13-year old, unmarried virgin was pregnant by God? Certainly Joseph would know that it wasn’t his child. What would have gone through the mind of Mary? Surely she would have struggled with terrifying thoughts about what this will mean for her future. Marriage was of high value in this culture. Would there be a public disgrace? Would she be an outcast? According to the Mosaic Law, Mary could face execution (Deut. 22:20). Would she be stoned? No doubt that all these thoughts were flashing in her mind. It is reasonable to expect that she would have found the situation distressing. An unexplained pregnancy would have been very bad for a young woman at the time. Would her family and neighbors believe that she became pregnant without the aid of a man? As Mary processed Gabriel’s news, real fears must have clouded her mind: gossip, slander, ruin! Despite the fear of societal repercussions, Mary responded “I am the Lord’s slave. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). That is tremendous faith! She put her life on the line for God’s promise.
A long, arduous journey to Bethlehem
The newly betrothed couple is forced to travel about 90 miles to the city of Joseph’s ancestors from their home in Nazareth to register for a Roman census. Normal walking pace, even with a camel or donkey, a traveler can walk about 20 miles each day. However, because of Mary’s impending delivery, Joseph and Mary likely would have traveled only 10 miles a day. The world of Mary and Joseph was a difficult and dangerous place, one whose harsh conditions were not fully chronicled in the Gospel accounts. Without a doubt, it was an exhaustive journey through the harsh terrains of the Judean desert most likely in the autumn season. “It’s in the 30s during the day and rains like heck. It’s nasty, miserable. And at night it would be freezing. We have no idea how difficult it was.” (James F. Strange, Prof New Testament, and biblical archeology at the University of South Florida in Tampa). One of the most terrifying dangers in ancient Palestine was the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River. Lions and bears lived in the woods, and travelers had to fend off wild boars. And bandits, pirates of the desert, and robbers were also common hazards along the route which Joseph and Mary would have traveled. How exhausted Mary must have been! How anxious Joseph must have been to find a comfortable room at the inn!
The labor in the stinky barn
The hardships did not end when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. You would think that God would have prepared them a comfy bedroom of an inn. However, in that overcrowded city, there was no room in the inn so they were forced to seek lodging at the stable. A 13-year old girl, a long way from her home and family, expecting her first child in a dirty barn? Smell the manure. Hear the screams. There were no I.V.’s, pain-killers, or epidurals. We can only imagine that she was scared. Then, the baby is born. If you’ve ever witnessed a baby being born, they don’t come out cute. I remember when my daughter was born; I was with my wife in the labor room. They come out slimy. Then comes the blood and the afterbirth. It sounds gross, but that is the reality of the first Christmas. Then, after the baby was born, he wasn’t laid in a cradle or a crib, wrapped in soft, fluffy blankets. He was laid in an unsterilized feeding trough, wrapped in rags. No Pampers, no baby wipes, no moisturizing creams, no hand sanitizers.
A lifetime full of humiliations
The first Christmas was just the beginning of a lifetime full of humiliations. The Creator of the universe, the possessor of divine glory and majesty, the One rightly worshipped by all the heavenly hosts, took the form of a slave. He “made himself nothing” by taking on human nature (Philippians 2:7). He humbly renounced the glories of Heaven and welcomed the restrictions of humanity in order to accomplish salvation for sinners. On that day, God felt cold and hunger and pain for the first time. On that day, God cried for the first time. On that day, God became a helpless baby. Not long after He was born, Herod sought to kill Him so Joseph fled to Egypt with the child and his mother. Later Jews conspired against Him and sought to kill Him. Jesus became the object of their bitter hatred and their predetermined victim.
They have unlawfully arrested Jesus, brought false accusations against Him, and put Him through an illegal trial at night to be put to death, which had been already determined by the priestly judges. Unjustly, He had been pronounced guilty of blasphemy by the supreme tribunal of the nation. Jehovah was convicted of blasphemy against Jehovah! He allowed himself to be mocked and ridiculed. He allowed himself to be beaten and spit upon. He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly; he never said a word. Like a lamb about to be slaughtered, like a sheep about to be sheared, he never said a word (Isaiah 53:7). He allowed himself to suffer the cruelest and humiliating death known to mankind. He was rejected and murdered by His own. He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). A life that began in utter humiliation also ended in utter humiliation. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to die on Calvary.
But why? Why did he allow himself to suffer and die?
Because He loved us so much. Christ died to show the all-surpassing, incomparable height, depth, width, and length of God’s love for us (John 3:16). The scripture reminds us that our justification is grounded in the love of God. Christ died because we needed to be saved from eternal punishment. Scripture teaches us that we all have violated the holy Law of God, and therefore subjected to the wrath of God. We are all covenant-breakers who are exposed to the curse of God -to be cut off from His presence and to be cut off from all of His blessings. And the transgression against the Holy God required the life of the perpetrator. Christ came to redeem us from the curse of God by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
The Father had determined that the Son would suffer, be rejected, and ultimately be killed to redeem His people from God’s righteous wrath against their sin. The punishment for sin before the Almighty God was death, and if Jesus was to save His people, it would be necessary for Him to make full payment for their sin. At the Cross, God laid our sins on Christ and transferred His righteousness to us. He is our Savior, not merely because He died, but because He lived a sinless life before He died, as only the Son of God could do. The only means by which the righteousness and the merit of Christ can be applied to us is by faith. We can’t earn it. We can’t deserve it.
Christmas is not about a cute baby born in a manger. Christmas is all about God of the universe beginning His journey from the cradle to the cross to save His people from their sin. Christmas is about the cross!