One of the most dependable pre-Christmas traditions is American shoppers complaining about the commercialization of Christmas along with American store managers complaining that shoppers aren’t spending enough. Mary and Joseph didn’t have to think about how to fulfill everyone’s gift lists. They had enough to worry about, especially Mary.
One of the disadvantages of living in America is that we have had it so good for so long, that we tend to idealize some very harsh realities. Manger scenes have become so cozy-looking that they are almost nice enough to become models of new birthing center decor. By romanticizing we do a disservice to ourselves by pretending that life has to be perfect to be good.
We can even read the original Christmas story in Luke1 and 2 and miss the point. In a way that’s understandable. Think about the announcement to Mary. Gabriel told her that a) she would soon conceive a son; b) her son would be great; c) he would be the Son of God; d) He would be the King of the Jews; e) His kingdom would last forever.
There are no human words to describe how good this news was. Mary was the recipient of the most honored position of any Jewish woman: Mother of the Messiah. You might think she would be grateful, maybe even preparing her acceptance speech.
But life is hard, even when it is good. Mary was a common sense realist. From her perspective this was not good news. After Gabriel allayed Mary’s concern for her purity and reputation, after Mary accepted her God-given role, after an angel handled the problem of how to break the news to Joseph, after God confirmed Mary’s faith upon her meeting Elizabeth, the news still was not good.
In fact, things seemed to go downhill. An unexpected tax bill, a long trip on bad roads—we know the story. Then, there is the issue of child birth, a messy affair under the best of modern circumstances. I understand the impulse to place a sweet young lady in a Precious Moments setting, relaxed and calmly smiling down on her newborn child. But of all of the manger scene depictions I have seen, only one even remotely resembled what the original Christmas must have looked like. It is a painting that shows Joseph, looking tired and somber as he gazes down on baby Jesus. Mary is laying propped up on the stone floor of a bare room, covered with a thin blanket. There is no halo around her face, but there is a look of total exhaustion.
We can retain and even enhance the joy of celebrating Christmas if we remember it for what it really was like. Christian writer Dave Meuer said it well. “The perfect Christmas is a myth. After all, the first Christmas was hardly perfect. It was glorious and difficult, miraculous and earthy, sublime and sweaty, tender and yet so harsh. Angel songs were mixed with animal smells. The hopes and fears of all the years were jumbled together as Heaven invaded a stable. Nothing has really changed since then. Hopes and fears still meet. Christmas may not be perfect. But it can be good.”