As we turn our eyes toward Bethlehem and the manger that would cradle our blessed Savior as He made His way into the world, it's worth recognizing that all of the images we have of this moment are essentially quiet ones.
They are paintings made in warm gold tones, with brilliant auras all around. They are smiling faces and tender hearts, a young mother and father perfectly posed with their newborn babe. They are animals lying in beds of straw, one next to another next to another. They are silent nights, holy nights, with bright and morning stars sparkling in the dark stillness. All is calm, we sing.
I don't know where it is that we got the idea that the first Christmas was so unlike the Christmases that most of us celebrate. I don't know where we got the idea that it was all quiet and calm and perfect, with this incredible stillness and peace and idealism.
We are, after all, talking about childbirth. In a barn. With animals.
Absolutely none of this screams, "Unfathomably perfect and beautiful." Absolutely none of this suggests that it was as pristine as our paintings pretend. The journey was arduous, the birth was painful, the animals were real. There was noise and screaming and crying and mooing and the stench of both new life and decaying organic matter (read: animal excrement).
The first Christmas was as much of a mess as any of the rest of them.
And that's good news.
It's good news not because it somehow makes us feel better about what we're getting into this week. The reason this is good news is because it means that Jesus really was fully human coming into a fully human world.
To diminish the first Christmas into this postcard image is to deny that. If Mary's childbirth was easy, her loving husband near to her, a seamless entry into the world for the coming Savior, then Jesus wasn't born of flesh. He wasn't born of the curse. The curse, all the way back in Genesis 3, says that childbirth is not going to be easy. It's not going to be "calm." It's going to be loud and painful and crazy. So in the barn that night, we have to know that it was loud and painful and crazy.
And can we talk about the barn that night? Only someone who has never been in a barn thinks it's this nice, cozy, clean place with fresh beds of straw all the time and animals that rest quietly when there are disturbances about. I live in 4-H country, and my house is less than a mile away from the barns at the county fairgrounds. When those barns are full, they aren't quiet. At all hours, I can hear, even from this short distance away, all the noises that the animals make. And if the winds are blowing just right....
The barns in Bethlehem were full. The inns were full, so the barns were full - because persons and families traveled by animal. The barns were probably over-full, given the situation. Everybody who had any ties to Bethlehem was there, along with the animals that they rode and the animals that their servants rode and the animals that they placed their packs on to travel. And if the barns are full, let's just admit it right now: they aren't clean. That beautiful golden straw that we see on our postcards? Not a chance.
And then let's talk about the other persons present. Let's talk about those in the inn. Let's talk about the women who would hear the sounds of labor and know what was happening. Let's talk about the number of families staying in that inn who would have, at the very least, sent their servants out to see what was happening. Let's talk about the midwives that must have been there, at least one - even for a poor family like Mary and Joseph. Because Joseph would not be there holding his wife's hand and whispering encouraging sweet nothings in her ear. That's a modern invention, not a first-century birth. Birthing was for women; Joseph was probably petting a camel or something.
There's nothing quiet and calm and pristine about the first Christmas. There's nothing perfect about it. Our perfect Savior was come into an imperfect world in imperfect flesh in a dirty, busy barn on what was anything but a silent night. Even when all was said and done, even when He laid in His mother Mary's arms, it wasn't quiet. Jesus Himself was making the noise. Jesus Himself was crying, adding to the lowing of the animals and the noise from the inn and the flocks in the fields.
It just wasn't "pretty" like we want it to be. And that's okay.
Because let's be real for a second: none of our Christmases are. They're not pretty.
But they're beautiful. Just like the first one.
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