(This post is an adaptation of my Christmas Eve message for 2020.)
I think there’s a part of us that longs for a “perfect Christmas”.
Maybe the most perfect Christmas you can remember was the one when everyone was home, or the one when everyone was still around in your family. No one was missing around the table.
Or maybe a perfect Christmas for you is like a compilation of good memories: a favorite gift given or received, a Christmas prank, or squeezing in for crowded Christmas Eve services.
This Christmas probably won’t go down as a “perfect one” in most people’s memories. For so many families, this Christmas is not feeling so festive, because it’s overshadowed with grief, or because loved ones are staying apart for one another’s safety.
This Christmas there’s “no room at the inn” in all sorts of places – crowded hospitals, food banks, homeless shelters, and rehab programs. There are overwhelming needs around us or perhaps in your own life as this year comes to a close.
I think it’s safe to say that what’s on many of our Christmas lists is normalcy – or at least some semblance of it, & hopefully sooner rather than later.
You might have noticed that retail stores have seen a surge in sales this year – in Christmas decorations, colorful lights, live Christmas trees: something bright and beautiful to cheer up the end of a tough year.
The first Christmas, though, didn’t involve any stockings or sweet treats or white elephant exchanges or any of the festivity that we may associate with Christmastime. It wasn’t perfect.
If Mary and Joseph could have scripted things, they’d probably have wanted to welcome their first child a little later in their relationship. I also don’t envy Joseph in trying to explain to friends and family that his bride-to-be is going to give birth to the Son of God!
And when she does, it’s not with any of the modern medical care that we appreciate today. Babies were born in the home in those times – little homes at that – and the women in the new mother’s family and neighborhood would assist as needed. But Mary wasn’t in her neighborhood, surrounded by family and familiar faces. In fact, it may have been several years before she and Joseph would see home again!
That first Christmas wasn’t so perfect and peaceful as some of our beloved Christmas carols make it out to be. Was it a “Silent Night” in Bethlehem? Bethlehem was just a little village in those days. Most of the time is was probably a peaceful enough place, but not when Mary and Joseph got to town. The little town was packed.
Descendants of King David and Bethlehem’s other historical families had all descended at once because a couple thousand miles away, the Roman Emperor said so! One of the Roman methods of conducting a census involved sending subjects back to their ancestral hometowns to register and pay their taxes to their occupiers.
I can’t imagine that any of this felt like a perfect experience to this poor couple from Nazareth, going through the expense and effort of walking all the way to Bethlehem to satisfy Caesar – especially when Mary was soon to give birth.
What were the conditions really like for Mary’s labor and delivery that night in Bethlehem? We don’t know many details, but we do know there was no more room. They had to settle for some sort of shelter – maybe it was a stable. The oldest traditions say it was a cave. It was “adequate” at best.
But babies come when they want to come – and this baby wanted to be born in Bethlehem!
It wasn’t a perfect night for the shepherds either. It was just another night. Another night under the stars, keeping a lookout, lest the sheep wander off or get picked off by predators.
You didn’t aspire to be a shepherd in Jesus’ time. It was a job for guys who simply needed work. They were looked down on for doing a job that someone had to do. They’d were the kind of guys you’d meet on “Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe.” And that Christmas night for them was another night, away from the warmth and camaraderie of the village – protecting the sheep that their neighbors counted on for sacrifices, and meat, and wool …
Some months earlier, Mary sang out in her joy over the sons that she and relative, Elizabeth, were expecting: “The Lord has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble!” We see what Mary is singing about – God lifting up women like her and Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother, and also lifting up men like those shepherds out in the fields.
And did God ever do that one night outside Bethlehem! The angel of the Lord gave them the greatest surprise and honor of their lives! Another mundane night shift was transformed by the glory of heaven – blazing down around them and the sheep.
The shepherds were shocked! Terrified! God’s glory was spotlighting them – sinful men as they were. Was God going to “strike them down” then and there?
But in another surprise, the angel’s message begins, “Fear not … For behold, I bring you Good News of great joy that will be for all the people! For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
I wonder when the last time was that these shepherds received any good news, much less news of great joy? If ever there were people who needed Good News, it was folks like these shepherds. What do you do when you’ve heard this sort of news? You check it out for yourself! So they went to town looking for a baby! The Messiah – the Lord – as the angel said, and yet resting on a bed of hay.
In the 1977 movie, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Magi arrive later to greet Mary and Joseph and they take in their simple surroundings in Bethlehem, one of the Magi (played by James Earl Jones) admits that at first he didn’t think that this would be the place where you would possibly find a King. But then a fellow Wise Man looks at little Jesus and adds, “Not in glory, but in humility.”
The Son of God came down to us in a way that both simple shepherds and accomplished Magi could recognize: In our human flesh. A poor child. Sharing our sorrows. Not in glory, but in humility.
The shepherds shared the Good News with Mary and Joseph (and others around town). For this couple, it confirmed what the angel Gabriel had announced to them months earlier – Christ the Savior was born! Mary’s Child, & God’s Child.
This Good News would sustain them as they protected and raised this Child, fled with this Child to Egypt, and finally returned to the comforts of home and friends and family.
There was one thing perfect about that first Christmas night: the Christ Child, sleeping in the manger. The only baby born into this world of sin whom we can truly call “perfect” & “innocent.”
“Not in glory but in humility” would also describe most of Jesus’ life and ministry, especially the day when Mary watched as her precious, firstborn Son was nailed unto a Roman cross. How could it all come to this for the One celebrated by angel hosts at His birth? Mary’s perfect Son had done nothing to deserve such a fate. But we have. And yet, her Son came, to be a perfect sacrifice, to take away the sin of the world.
However, Mary, along with Jesus’ fearful disciples, would hear Good News of Great Joy again: Christ is Risen! And your perfect Savior lives for you still. And He is preparing a perfect place – free of sin and sickness – for all who trust Him for salvation.
It may not be a perfect Christmas this year. Your surroundings may not be what you were hoping for. You may not be surrounded by those you’d hoped to celebrate with. You’re not hearing much “Good News” from the news sources of this present world.
But there is one thing perfect this Christmastime – the One whose arrival was announced to the struggling shepherds, the same One who has seen us through this tough year, and who humbly suffered and died and gloriously arose for you.
Unto you is born a perfect Savior – Christ the Lord!