There are many wonderfully curious parts of the Christmas story. There is the virgin birth, which by all accounts isn’t the way you would start a story that you wish to be believable to an audience, especially thousands of years later. An angel appeared to a young Hebrew girl who was engaged to Joseph. He told her she was pregnant. Not only that, but that her child was Jesus, Son of the most High God. He would be a King, being given the throne of David. Her obvious question was, “What? No way! How can this be? I’m still a virgin. No seriously, I am.”
Then there was the odd little meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth, being much older than Mary was also pregnant but her baby (John the Baptist) leapt in her womb when she heard Mary’s voice. Then Mary sang a song and stayed with Elizabeth for three months. I guess that Mary’s parents weren’t concerned for her enough to require her home.
So now she goes back to Nazareth and people start asking questions. She’s a small little girl anyway, but she starts to – well – look pregnant. Joseph was going to do the honorable thing and divorce her rather than the far worse consequences of the charges of infidelity, but an angel appeared to him and, “Don’t do it. The Holy Spirit conceived the child.” So they got married and planned to kind of stay out of the public eye for a while.
Then there was the decree from Cesar Augustus. A census was to be taken and they would need to go to Bethlehem, which was his hometown. Through many people (see Matthew 1) Joseph was the great great great great great great great great – well you get the picture – grandson of David, who was descended from Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. Quite the family tree, which made it all the more important to show up and be registered. But what about Mary? She was 8 months pregnant. Her midwife was in Nazareth, a solid week away on foot. I think this is one of the oddest parts of the story. Obstetricians these days really don’t want their patients to travel after 7 months. But here Mary is, and she wants to take a long trip with no real return date scheduled, all to sign up as “present” with the Roman government. And sure enough, while they are there in this little rural town, Mary’s water breaks and she goes into labor. But since they are so far from home, in a small town that is packed to the brim with people because of the census, there still isn’t a room for rent anywhere. No last minute Priceline. No Airbnb. Finally Joseph asks an innkeeper if there is anything – anywhere – where they can be alone. He says to go around back to the cave where the animals stay. Now picture this again. Almighty God, in fully human flesh as a baby, is going to make his grand entrance with the sights and sounds – and smells – of farm animals looking on. Strange indeed.
How about the shepherds? A vocation which wasn’t seen as all that difficult and therefore not held with that much esteem. The shepherds are given the honor of being the first ones told of the birth of this King. They’re just trying to stay awake and then an angel appears to them out of nowhere and says, “Fear not, I bring good news. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. He is the Savior, Christ the Lord” Then a bunch more angels appear – thousands of angels at once – and they sing another song for a bit and disappear. So the shepherds do what they were told and walk around Bethlehem for a bit and sure enough, they find Jesus just as the angels had said. So they start telling their friends, their bosses, their neighbors, and even the higher ups in the world, who of course dismiss them as crazies.
Finally, in one of the worst mass genocides imaginable, around the time Jesus was 2, Herod gets word of this “King’ who was born a couple of years ago from three wise men/astrologers/scientists who had come to give him gifts. Herod tried to get Jesus’s address in order to kill him but angels appear to the wise men and tell them to take the long way home, avoiding Herod. Joseph and Mary also took Jesus a few states away so that they would not be spotted. That didn’t stop Herod, though. He murders all of the children under two in order to try and eradicate this king, someone who could potentially challenge his authority.
So what do we do with these oddities? How do we address them? Of course historically, and there is an “embarrassment of riches” in the sense of the historicity of these events. Certainly emotionally we want to connect with these events. We love Christmas. We all want to extend the season as much as possible and listen to its music earlier and earlier each season. We buy gifts like the wise men to give to others. We sing songs like the angels (at least we try). We even try to go to church a bit more this year. I mean, who shows up on random weeknights to light candles and sing songs?
The mystery of Christmas is profound. Books have been written extensively on the subject. Religions argue the major and even minor points of the story. But these mysteries only point us to “the” mystery. It’s the only mystery that matters. The mystery of Christmas is Emmanuel – God with us. Not God near us. Not God close by if we call out. But really, truly God with us. Fully man and fully God. In real flesh, in real Spirit-filled life. He came to earth as innocent as a baby, helpless but with all of the strength that God has. Crying for food and milk but He himself the Bread of Life. Needing to be taught how to string a fishing line but the Fisher of Men. A boy that caught colds and maybe the flu, skinned His knee, maybe even twisted his ankle playing on the playground, but He himself the Great Physician, curing the greatest of all illnesses. A boy who grew up with real fears, real temptation, and real desires, yet the Desire of Nations, desiring to nothing but the will of His Father who sent him.
This boy king who was born – Jesus – is “the” mystery. And He is Himself the whole point of Christmas. There is no Resurrection morning joy without the Good Friday pain. There is no Good Friday pain without the manger. But the manger, a common feeding trough fit for the donkeys and the sheep, has lying in it the perfect Lamb of God. A lamb without blemish. A lamb that would one day be hung on a cross for the sins of the world.
That’s why we celebrate Christmas. We long to be present in the mystery that this season provides. The mystery that, though our sins are like scarlet, the Spotless Lamb of God is with us. He is for us. He shall make them white as snow.
Grace and peace this Advent season. Come behold the wondrous mystery.