At this time of year, it’s hard to escape the idea that if we just work to create the proper proportion of parties and presents, the correct combination of cookies, carols and cards, the most magnificent mix of mistletoe and manger scenes…that somehow, we can skillfully pull off the most magical and PERFECT Christmas.
We picture it in glorious detail in our mind’s eye. Oh, what stunning filtered photos we will be able to post on Instagram. It will be the best of Pinterest, Hallmark and Norman Rockwell all rolled up into one!
Even the songs of the season ring out with the possibilities of perfection. One in particular caught my ear the other day while listening to an all-Christmas station. The lyrics told me it’s Christmas time and “there’s a little bit of heaven everywhere.”
But then, reality sets in. The cookies burn. The kids are crying. The family has become more like Norman Bates than Norman Rockwell, (Am I too old? Is that a reference that dates me!? Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho??) the checkbook is drained before the gifts are all purchased, and the celebration of the season feels less like heaven and a lot more like…. well, you know!
Each year we see the nativity scene before us…on fireplace mantels, arranged beautifully under the Christmas tree, wonderfully lit in outdoor displays, and often re-enacted by bright eyed and chubby faced little boys and girls. It oozes with peace and bliss and wonder and perfection…. the perfect Christmas filled with peace on earth, good will toward men…but let’s take a closer look at the actual First Christmas.
So, the angel appears to Mary as we read in the first chapter of Luke. Gabriel tells her she is HIGHLY FAVORED and that THE LORD IS WITH HER. Scripture tells us that Mary was GREATLY troubled, but the angel reassured her: DO NOT BE AFRAID, MARY. YOU HAVE FOUND GREAT FAVOR WITH GOD.
Ok….what do we think when we hear that someone is HIGHLY FAVORED and that THE LORD IS WITH THEM? I don’t know about you but my mind goes to the best things. Peace, supply, no problems, smooth sailing... after all, GOD IS WITH ME! Right!? Favor is something that is to our advantage. It’s the kindness and good things that are extended to us. Often when we do a favor for someone, we are helping them out, lightening their load, doing something they appreciate. It’s all good, right!?
But let’s look at what happens to Mary as a result of this favor:
She has an unexplained pregnancy…can you imagine trying to sell this one to your friends and family? I’m not sure that they were buying “the angel told me” story! They must have thought she was a little off.
In the middle of this, Joseph wants to dump her. It took God sending another angel to him to convince Joseph to stick it out and go through with the plan to wed Mary. My guess is there were more questions than merriment surrounding those nuptial plans. Then after they were married they couldn’t even have a “union”…as Matthew tells the story! Well…that’s kind of a bummer, isn’t it? I’m sure they were wondering about this “favor” and the great plan of God in all of this.
As if what they already had to contend with wasn’t enough, they are compelled by Caesar to take the road trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be counted in the census. (And we think it’s bad when we have to answer a census questionnaire!?) Mary is obviously quite pregnant and if the Christmas card illustrators are correct, traveling by donkey.
Bible scholars debate if there was actually a donkey involved but whether she walked or went by donkey, it still had to be unpleasant! Being very pregnant and walking or riding any kind of animal for about 80 miles is not most women’s idea of a good time.
When they finally get there, because of the influx of people coming into “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the Holiday Inn was booked solid…as was the Days Inn, the Comfort Inn and all the other inns. No rooms were to be had. Have you ever experienced that? Road tripping and you can’t find a vacancy sign? Again, this is what favor looks like? This is God with us?
Such was the experience for Mary and Joseph. Now they end up in the barn or cave or whatever the sub-standard accommodations were for that time and place. We get creeped out checking for bed bugs or finding hairs in the tub at the Super 8 Motel! That’s great luxury in comparison! So far this Christmas nativity scene is falling pretty far short of perfect.
Meanwhile, the shepherds were out in the field watching their sheep. Not such a fabulous Christmas for them either, the lowly and despised lot that they were. Shepherds were on the bottom of the social ladder. The same status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Stuck in a dead end, dirty, miserable job where they had little appreciation, money, or position and no one respected them. Life pretty much stunk for them. Ever feel like that?
Back at the barn—now on top of the exhausting trip and the bad sleeping arrangements—the “time had come for the baby to be born.” Mary was in labor. While the Bible makes no mention of what either of their reactions or emotions were, don’t you wonder? Was Joseph freaking out like a nervous father-to-be? Did Mary get a bit unnerved—or let’s face it—come unglued because the cattle were lowing a few feet away from her. AND let’s not forget where there are cows, there is the mess and smell of cows…and sheep or chickens or whatever else was around the area! Certainly not the atmosphere any mother would like to deliver her little bundle of joy in.
In our fictionalized and romanticized version, the choir is singing “Silent Night” …or in our modern adaptations it’s probably “Mary Did You Know?” But in reality, it was probably more like the song from Hee Haw…. (Now I’m really dating myself!)
Gloom, despair and agony on me,
Deep dark depression, excessive misery,
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,
Gloom, despair and agony on me.
The angel had told Mary: “For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) I wonder how many times she had to replay those words in her mind or repeat them aloud to herself? And then…when it seemed like God was a million miles away, Jesus was born. It was not possible for God to be any closer to them.
Think about it. He was RIGHT THERE. God in the flesh. His perfect plan unfolding in the midst of what is arguably rotten circumstances.
So, what is the secret of the perfect Christmas?
Philippians 4 says: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
The true secret of Mary and Joseph’s Christmas story is the secret to our Perfect Christmas: Press on and stay calm and content through miserable circumstances.
Then our version of Philippians 4 this Christmas can read something like this:
I know what it is to get last minute, thoughtless gifts or even no gifts from my spouse…and I know what it is to get the most special and well-planned pile of packages.
I know what it is to spend the days with my insane in-laws and annoying siblings and screaming, wailing, ungrateful kids…and some adults, too……and I know what it is to spend blissful evenings where everyone gets along and everything goes according to plan.
I know what it is to carry a heart full of ache because of the absence of the ones I hold near and dear …and I know what it is to be surrounded by treasured loved ones who fill my heart to overflowing.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether my photo Christmas cards turn out like a work of art, or if they look like a DMV mug shot….
…whether the tree stays standing and decorated or if it tips over and the kids and cats chew the ornaments off….
…whether we make it through the advent calendar and activities to build family traditions or if we end up tossing all the best intentions because the stomach flu hits the entire family…one member at a time for the entire last three weeks of December…
…whether my whole family is together as I would wish, or if we are parted by distance or torn apart through tragedy and loss….
We can do all this through him who gives us strength.
So, when Christmas doesn’t feel perfect, when our lives in general aren’t perfect…. because let’s be honest, they NEVER will be this side of heaven…. when we can’t figure out what God is up to or where He is in the challenges, remember that First Christmas.
If we have to face the unkind words and humiliation of those around us…
If we are required to travel a distance to see family and the trip becomes grueling…
If we are challenged by the discomforts of what is required of us…
If we find ourselves being rejected and feel as if we don’t belong or that there isn’t a place where we fit in…
If we are in the middle of working and laboring hard to produce a life for ourselves and our family and pushing to bring about something that will make a difference in the world and in the Kingdom of God…
If we’re stuck in the stinky atmosphere of people and places that we may not wish to spend our time…
If we are wondering, “Where are you God??” And thinking, “This couldn’t possibly be the plan or what You had in mind!”…
…. remember Joseph and Mary and that First Christmas. And remember, when everything seemed so wrong, God was right there in the midst of it. He could not have been any closer to them. Remember, He is Emmanuel—God WITH us. He is closer than we think. The perfect Christmas isn’t found in what goes on around us, it is found in the One who is with us.MERRY CHRISTMAS!