For so many, Christmas is a time of celebration with family and friends. Yet there are others for whom this season is always incredibly difficult due to the loss of loved ones. This year, however, meets us all with a Christmas entrenched in human suffering: from the loss of loved ones to the loss of liberties. From financial distress to social unrest. From a physical health pandemic to a mental health crisis. We are struggling to find our footing this Christmas.
Shouldn’t this be a season of joy and rejoicing?
Well, let’s pump the breaks on the ideas and traditions we’ve come to hold dear in celebrating Christmas.
In a year where “real history” has been clawing to break through the carefully woven fabric of a more palatable and aesthetically pleasing version of events that has become known as American History, it only seems fitting to consider the anomaly that is the birth of Jesus. After all, His story has all the makings of a modern-day Hallmark holiday blockbuster:
The Scandal: A teenage pregnancy
Relationship Drama: Heartbreak and betrayal
Hardship: The mandate for a nationwide census; a road trip; a stable birth; a nationwide mandate for a child massacre
Antagonist: A jealous king
Protagonist: A guardian angel and the Holy Spirit
Award-winning Writer, Executive Director, and Producer: God working behind the scenes to orchestrate an unlikely miracle
It was not your average teen pregnancy, after all, she did nothing to compromise her virtue. She hadn’t been seduced by the village playboy. She and her boyfriend hadn’t gone too far one night as they sat under the stars. No, that wasn’t her story, yet imagine how it must have looked in a culture where the entire family was disgraced by pregnancy outside of marriage. When virginity was a virtue desired in the betrothal of one’s daughter. Her life changed the moment Gabriel visited her, but rather than tears of shame and fears of family estrangement, Mary accepted the prophetic word spoken by the angel and conceived the Savior of the World!
Immaculate Conception – His birth was considered a miracle, conceived well beyond childbearing age. He would be born the voice for the ages and the older cousin. His purpose in life was to preach the word of God and announce the coming of his younger cousin, the Messiah—Jesus. Yes, the conception and birth of John the Baptist was considered a miracle. Zacharias and Elizabeth were in their elder years and the circumstances surrounding John’s birth were so significant to Jesus’ story, that it leads the opening chapter in Luke (1:5-24).
If John’s birth was a miracle, then naturally, the conception of the Savior of all humanity would have to be more…amazing! More incredible! More… IMMACULATE? Of all the adjectives in the vocabulary, why would it be important for the word connected to the birth of our Savior to be immaculate?
Jesus was born to be the one and final sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. Under Old Testament Law, the sacrificial lamb had to be without spot or blemish. To be conceived immaculately means Jesus was conceived in total purity, completely undefiled by any human contaminant. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit by an unwed, but espoused, virgin. She hadn’t yet been married, but as was the custom of the day, she was contractually committed to Joseph. For Mary, her family, and her fiancé, this pregnancy could be considered a disgrace—a shame to the reputation of each of them. Poor Joseph, imagine his horror when he learned of her pregnancy knowing there was no way he could be the father. The bible says he planned to quietly ‘put Mary away’ as was the right by law to divorce an unfaithful spouse (Matt. 1:19). He planned to do it quietly so that Mary would not be publicly shamed. Face it, as romanticized as we’re used to making the Christmas miracle of Jesus’ conception, at that moment, it all seemed more of a Christmas nightmare.
From God’s perspective, however, Mary’s teen pregnancy was a careful orchestration to protect the honor and integrity of His son’s position and authority. Mary’s virgin pregnancy while espoused to Joseph secured Jesus’ legitimacy, giving him a reputed father. By law, he would be a legitimate son preventing him from lifelong disapproval and disgrace.
Mary’s teenage pregnancy would be far different from your average teen pregnancy. Mary would usher in the life to change all lives for all eternity.
An Unlikely Hero – throughout Jesus’ story, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is onsite and active. First, Gabriel, an Archangel who typically dwells in the presence of God, visits Zechariah and Elizabeth to announce the birth of John the Baptist. Six months later, he visits Mary to inform her that her favor before the Lord has lead to her selection for the birth of the Messiah. He tops off this segment of his journey in a dream in which he instructs Joseph not to divorce his young bride. In the beginning of Jesus’ story, we see specifically Gabriel’s involvement, and the power of the Holy Spirit is expressly mentioned. Likewise, after the birth of Jesus, the hosts of heaven (angels) appear to shepherds all throughout the land to sing praises of the King’s birth. Their joy is contagious and spreads among the Jews and many of those who hear of the birth of the Messiah seek to find and worship Him. Finally, the Spirit protects the life of Jesus by giving specific instructions to the wise men as well as to Joseph.
No Airbnb. Oh how we love our nativity scenes, don’t we? The story is told with such warmth and regality, but have you ever considered this: Mary endured a sixty-plus mile road trip in her ninth month of pregnancy. We don’t know if she road an animal, walked, or was otherwise carried. The bible doesn’t give us those details, but even with first-class transport, a journey of that length in that day and age would have been brutal for any expecting mother. The Bible further tells us that Joseph and Mary were unable to secure adequate accommodations. No Airbnb for this momma. Instead, Joseph would do his best to make the available space in the stables comfortable for his bride and soon coming son. I don’t own a farm, but I’ve been to horse stables. They aren’t typically heated. Can you imagine what kind of swaddling would have to happen to keep Jesus warm? And what about the newlywed new parents? Was our Savior born in impoverished conditions? This, friends, is our beloved nativity. Sacred only because of the one who lay swaddled in what is virtually an animal’s feeding trough.
Enter the villain. Caesar Augustus, Roman Emperor at Jesus’ birth, had ordered a nationwide census, which required everyone to return to their hometown to be counted. For Joseph and Mary, this meant leaving Nazareth of Galilee on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown. While Augustus’ decree did force Mary and Joseph to commence their long uncomfortable trip during a highly uncomfortable time, it was absolutely necessary. Old Testament prophecy declared the birth of the Messiah who would be born in the City of David, Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). God orchestrates circumstances to fulfill His word. Therefore, Augustus, as inconvenient as he may have made Jesus’ grand entrance into the world, is not the villain in this story.
No, that spot is reserved for King Herrod. Herrod, the regional ruler over Judea, would have likely been none the wiser about Jesus’ birth had it not been for the overly excited wise men. Where was their divine wisdom when they let the cat out of the bag? Hearing all of heaven’s harmony, and seeing the His star, the wise men went to King Herrod to ask where they could find the King of the Jews. I imagine Herrod thinking, “Wait, what? King! King of who?!” Immediately feeling threatened by this news of a new King he plotted to use the wise men to find Jesus’ exact location. Only he wasn’t interested in worshiping him—no, unlike all other seekers of the newborn King, Herrod sought to slaughter the child.
The king originally planned to find Jesus by using the wise men, but the Lord foiled that plan when he told the wise men in a dream not to return to Herrod with news of Jesus’ location (Matt. 2:12). When Herrod realized he’d been duped, he called for the massacre of every boy in Bethlehem within the age range matching the time of Jesus’ birth. Clearly, King Herrod hadn’t learned from Pharoah’s misdeed (see the birth of Moses, Exodus 1:15-22). There’s no way God would allow that plan to work. He sent an Angel to Joseph telling him to move his family into Egypt until it was safe to return home.
Jesus was a marked man from the moment He was born, to the moment He was executed. His parents had to live with the responsibility of raising the Messiah and keeping Him safe blatant threats to His life. I’d say they knew a little something about political abuse. Likewise, Jesus would grow up experiencing oppression and injustice.
Peace on earth; good will to men. The angels in heaven announced the arrival of Jesus. Jesus birth is both a promise fulfilled, and a promise in progress. His life is packed with guidance for enduring hardship and suffering. His ministry propels us to mature in faith and believe in miracles. His Spirit comforts us and reminds us of His love and His truth. His Word teaches us how to find peace in God’s presence no matter what is happening (John 16:33).
The challenges encountered throughout His life, from conception to execution are all the credentials Jesus needs to qualify as the best comforter for this holiday season of celebration which is uniquely surrounded by ambiguity and strife. There is social and political strife, financial and food insecurity, fear of physical sickness and death, grief, depression, and anxiety all around. Find the hope available to you through His story. He lived through tough circumstances. He experienced human suffering. This Christmas, honor Him as a survivor and decide that you too will survive. This Christmas, celebrate Him as the Savior and seek His provisions to carry you though. This Christmas may feel like no Christmas preceding it—it’s a Christmas anomaly. Look to Jesus for the strength, comfort, wisdom, and joy to truly rejoice.
FLEX YOUR FAITH
- If you are grieving the loss of a loved one: a) Give yourself permission to experience a rollercoaster of emotions, b) Give yourself room for flexibility: tell you friends and family what you will or will not participate in as you may not feel emotionally prepared to participate in traditions that will magnify the absence of the loved one who has passed. c) don’t feel guilty about asking for the support you need—ask for what you need, d) create a new tradition to honor your missing loved one and help you feel a sense of peace and possibly closure regarding their absence.
- If you are grieving the loss of normalcy and tradition: a) acknowledge your feelings and be compassionate to yourself (don’t judge or minimize your feelings), b) look for ways to capture some of the traditional experience (host a virtual Christmas party, or coordinate a virtual gift exchange if you can’t physically be together), c) create a new holiday tradition, don’t be afraid to think outside the box—who made up the rules for celebrating Christmas anyway?
- If you are experiencing economic hardship: a) emphasize and celebrate the foundational truths about Christmas, b) don’t spend (feel pressured to spend) money you don’t have or money you need to cover basic necessities, c) have the difficult conversations about how things will be different this year, d) don’t feel guilty! Get creative and enjoy the gift of time and one another’s presence.
Father, I thank you for the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ in whom I find hope, comfort, and peace. Help me to remember that Christ truly is able to empathize with my human experience—the pain and the joy. The highs and the lows. I lean on you for strength. Guide me through this season. Provide for my emotional, physical, and financial needs; show me where to go, what to do, and how to get through this holiday. I celebrate Jesus and rejoice in the hope I have in Him. God, I pray peace on earth and good will to men, in Jesus Name, Amen.