Chapter Two of In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas
The debates appear every year like clockwork. The subject? Public manger scenes. Christians want them, some vocal non-Christians don't. The editorial pages of newspapers will argue back and forth on why we should or shouldn’t publicly display nativities. But ultimately, somewhere, they will be displayed. Some will be statues and wooden renderings, and others will be live recreations.
Every Christmas we put out our own manger scene to much less debate, because it sits in our living room on our bookshelves. It is a small, quaint, rustic looking stall, crude, but charming. It is a busy scene with sheep, shepherds, camels, wise men bearing gifts and two baby Jesus' in a manger. (One from another long lost set put there by my youngest).
When dad connects the lights at night, and mom adds some appropriate seasonal foliage to cover the top of the stable, it gives our bookshelves a warm, wonderful “holidays” feel. The display is reminiscent of the holiday scenes we have grown familiar with. Primitive, yes, but in a warm pleasant sort of way. How could anyone object to this tender scene of family amid nature? What's all the fuss about?
My guess is that the fuss originates from folks who, while they don't believe a word of the story, have thought about it deeply enough to be disturbed by its implications. And that's where we all ought to find ourselves, disturbed by the implications.
When I stop and consider that Christmas is the day upon which I celebrate the entrance of the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all righteous, all holy, and glorious God into my world, I should honestly stop and look at that scene of the baby Jesus in the manger, scratch my head and say, “What's wrong with this picture?”
The problem is that I've gazed upon the scene too long and become numb to it. I've heard it so often that I've stopped thinking about it. But this scene isn't normal. God didn't want me to view it as warm and quaint. He wanted me to be appalled at the situation, bewildered, and confused, because in that confusion I would think about the scene rather than ignore it.
The words I have heard most often are the ones I am most in danger of becoming immune to. When the manger scene is read out loud, I think, “Oh yes, the Christmas story. I know that.” It is a tenderly primitive scene that creates a quaint picture in our mind’s eye. But this picture is all wrong! It screams out for explanation. The manger scene wasn't designed to put me in “the holiday mood,” but to shake me to the roots of my soul.
Four words in this story were designed to challenge my mind, not anesthetize it. “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12 NIV) The God of the ages, too glorious to look upon, whom Moses and Isaiah fell down on their faces before, is lying in a feeding trough? He from whom the cherubs hide their face is beset by flies in the filthiness of a stable? Now if this story was just myth, we could still smile warmly and safely ignore it. But this isn't myth, it is presented as fact, and at the least we should find this disturbing.
These four beautiful, magnificent, and glorious words, lying in a manger. There is far more here than the place Jesus was laid. There is here a message from God, a parable in four words, a testament in wood and straw. These four pregnant words contain more truth than would fit in a volume of books.
In these four words we find the answer to the most pressing questions of life and faith. There are important reasons why the Christ child needed to be found lying in a manger.
IT WAS THE SIGN TO THE SHEPHERDS
Because of the census, Bethlehem would be swollen with people. I picture the mall on a crowded day. But, in spite of all the babies that would be present, in homes, and carried about by their mothers, how would these simple shepherds find the child they were seeking?
All the babies would be wrapped in cloths, so that wouldn't narrow it down. No, the sign to the shepherds was that the baby would be lying in a manger. This would not be common or expected. Even then, if you wanted to provide comfort, safety and dignity for both mother and child, a stable for a recovery room, and a manger for a crib wouldn't have fit the bill.
This scene is strange, and was designed to be understood that way. So I try to imagine the shepherds entering Bethlehem, eagerly listening in the night, or early morning for the sounds of a crying baby. If the sounds of a crying child come from a home, or a mother's arms, they must reluctantly pass them by. How strange their activity must have seemed. Did it draw stares? Did this group of uncultured shepherds moving en masse elicit comments as they moved through the crowds? Undaunted, they continued their quest. They were searching for the promised sign: a baby--lying in a manger.
And finally, they find Mary and Joseph just as it had been told them, with Jesus. And sure enough, there He was, lying in a manger. They hadn’t gotten the directions wrong. They weren’t on a fool’s errand. They weren’t the victims of some divine practical joke. The pot of gold at the end of their rainbow was lying in the manger.
These shepherds would know without doubt that God had been leading them. The Christ child had to be found lying in a manger, or, for the shepherds, He could not have been found at all. Had he allowed Himself to be removed from His crude throne, the promise could not have been kept. So He remained in the greatest humility until the shepherds found Him in the only place they had been told to look—a manger. It was their sign, the heavenly magnet that drew them irresistibly. Without that sign the shepherds had no compass and no hope.
Had the shepherds never found the Christ child, the story would have ended and the promising miracle would have failed. The promise of God would have proven unreliable and all our hopes and our faith would have collapsed in utter disappointment. But the baby in the Manger was the Great Shepherd who easily led these men to a carpenter and his young wife, yes, and Himself.
And as we greet Joseph and Mary we are reminded of another obvious reason for this sign. For as the scene was a promised sign to the shepherds, it was also a billboard to the Christ child's earthly parents.
Can we imagine the sad plight of Mary and Joseph? What we celebrate with great joy each year must have been a terrible ordeal for them. Was this what Mary had envisioned when Elizabeth had prophesied that she would be greatly honored among women (Luke 1:42)? Surely she didn't expect a parade, but did she expect this? I recall her great faith, but was it challenged as she first entered the manger scene, exhausted from the long journey?
Did young Mary find the setting quaint and inspiring? Could she see beyond the dismal scene that greeted her eyes and assaulted her senses? What was she feeling when her labor pains began, a traumatic experience for any woman, much less a young girl of maybe thirteen or fourteen years.
No woman was there to help her, no midwife, no family member, just Joseph and her baby. They are left to “celebrate” the arrival of the God/Child, promised them with great miracles and dreams, in a stable. It would stretch imagination to believe that their first impression of this situation was one of instant understanding and celebration.
Did they ever ask themselves “What's wrong with this picture, God?” A Bethlehem Inn was no Holiday Inn. It was a crude series of stalls, built inside an enclosure. It consisted of food for the animals and a fire pit to cook on. Unfortunately, as dismal as this arrangement was, this was the part of the Inn in which there was no room.
No, despite her obvious pregnancy--no one offered to give them their space. They ended up in what was most likely a carved out cave, where filthy hay, mixed with animal waste, littered the floor, and the rank smell offended almost immediately.
There Mary went into labor, crying out in pain and fear, with a beleaguered Joseph her only attendant. It was a carpenter who most likely delivered the Christ child as He came into our world, slippery with blood, reacting instantly with cries as His warm body greeted the joltingly cold air. You can't recreate the drama of this scene with a nativity no matter how hard you try.
Yet, after the birth, God sent shepherds to seek the lonely family out. When they arrive, they share their angelic vision and the all important sign for them, a sign to the world--a baby lying in a manger. Not in a palace, or an ornately decorated crib befitting the Son of God. In fact, not even in a house, or a room, but outside, in the cold, lonely stable. And yet, the baby was right where He was supposed to be--lying in a manger. Did Mary and Joseph sigh in relief? Did joy once again flood their souls, washing away the debris of doubt that might have begun to accumulate in their hearts?
I think they needed to hear the heavenly pronouncement from the shepherds, to know that their present circumstances were holy to God. The plans hadn't gone wrong--the promises hadn't been forgotten. There had been no divine snafus. This was precisely the place God chose to showcase His entrance into our world, wrapped up so tight in swaddling cloths that He couldn't even move. We may call it many things, but not expected. This grand entrance did not fit His person or His glory--but we begin to see glimmers of His purpose. Why a manger?
THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR GOD IN THE WORLD HE HAD MADE
It actually makes sense. When God returned to His creation, it wasn't fitting that bands play, parades march, choirs sing, or kingly herald's trumpet the good news. It wasn't good news, not in this earthly neighborhood. He had long ago been exiled from most peoples hearts and minds. There were no rulers willing to move over for Him, or step down and make room for His sovereign Kingship. No palaces would have opened to Him with welcoming arms.
God entered the world in the place no one wanted, no one coveted, no one cared about, and no one would fight to keep Him out of, in fact, a place no one would even notice. The God of the Universe greeted His first day of humanity lying in a manger, in a dug out cave in Bethlehem. The eternal God sitting helplessly in a manger was an object lesson that would be impossible to ignore.
It is not uncommon to hear critics speaking of the wrathful, vengeful, judgmental God of the Old Testament, but such a God would never suffer Himself to be disgraced by lying helplessly in a manger. The manger scene reveals as much to us about the mercy and love of God as do any of His words, or acts of compassion. This scene puzzles the critics, and rightly so.
This scene, forever frozen in time, reminds us not only of His character, but ours. Herod the King would be jealous of Him and seek to kill Him, and lowly travelers, the common folk, would not inconvenience themselves to offer Him a better place to be born.
We are familiar with the words “there was no room for them in the Inn.” In truth, there was no room for Him anywhere. The creator had been evicted. He returned to a decidedly hostile world, not with His divine wrath prepared to destroy all who would treat Him with contempt, but in divine mercy prepared to endure all that we could throw at Him. Could God’s attitude of mercy and love towards our hostile and rebellious world have been any clearer when He was found lying in a manger?
When we are having difficulty conjuring up an appropriate Christmas spirit, we need only picture the God of eternity, too glorious for mortal eyes to look upon and live, enduring that filthy setting. It was His love for us that put Him in that manger, though He despised the shame of it. Could this incredible humiliation possibly be worth it? Could He say, “I love you” any clearer?
Is there something truly wrong with this picture? If I didn't understand the love of God I would be forced to laugh out loud, but instead I begin to sense a profound wisdom in this act. For as I picture Him lying in a manger I suddenly see something I'd never have understood otherwise.
GOD HAD TO HUMBLE HIMSELF IN A WAY I'D UNDERSTAND
How could I have missed it before? How does an infinite, perfect God, humble Himself in a way I'd understand? If He were to arrive in the company of thousands of angels, too glorious to look upon, descending from heaven in chariots of gold and precious jewels while the angels sang, "Holy, Holy, Holy is our God," He would still have been humbling Himself, but I wouldn't have understood it.
Angels, in all their awesome splendor are but still mere creations, unable, though not unwilling, to give God all the glory and praise He deserves. Any praise and adoration falls short of His infinite glory and majesty.
I would never have gotten the idea that God was willing to intentionally demean His perfect glory to save someone like me. When someone greater than us humbles themselves before us in some way, it is a powerful gesture. We are amazed that someone of their status would treat us so well. We can’t help but be moved.
God wanted to humble Himself in a way that even a common shepherd would understand, or a child, or a tax-gatherer, or a fisherman, or a fallen woman, or a self-righteous Pharisee, or me. The message must not be missed; the cookies must be put on the bottom shelf in reach of all. What better place to be found than “lying in a manger?”
If we approach this issue thoughtfully, we can’t help but be humbled in return. Important people in our world tend to associate with other important people. In fact, they often seek each other out. Being seen with the right people in the right places can take you far in our world. So it is with no little confusion that we view God humbling Himself so drastically before us. Yes, us. You and me. We were the reason He left His glory. We’ll never really understand it, not completely anyway. We know what He did, but for the life of us we can’t figure out why.
When someone gives us a gift we really didn’t expect or deserve, we say, “you shouldn’t have.” And we mean it, but we are touched by the thought. When I think about my God in a manger, the words “you shouldn’t have” just seem so inadequate. I shake my head in utter disbelief. But I am so dearly grateful that He did. The feelings that overwhelm us in that moment can’t be far from the true spirit of Christmas can they?
This scene compels me to realize even more that while lying in a manger, God was making an announcement to all who would come to Him. It was a strange, but welcome message. A silent message that told us what we desperately needed to know about our God.
ANYONE WHO WANTED COULD APPROACH HIM
It is so simple that it is easy to miss. Common folks can't visit palaces of newborn king’s uninvited, (and we seldom are). But king’s and princes can visit mangers, and so can bakers and weavers, wise men, and shopkeepers, priests, and children, cattle and sheep, and anything that desired.
The God/Child was announcing in a dramatic way that He had come to be available. He was accessible. He hadn't come to isolate Himself, or just hobnob with the important people. He had come to mingle with all, to receive them with open arms and put Himself at their disposal. All by simply being found lying in a manger!
I am reminded of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament with its ornate, gold inlaid work of great craftsmanship. It was beautiful, and precious, for it was to house the Shekinah glory of the Lord. Yet, a common feeding trough for beasts of burden was to host the God/Child Himself. Oh, the wisdom of God. “Why?” we ask ourselves. Why indeed! For me! God humbled Himself before me so that I would realize that there was nothing God wouldn't do to bring me back into relationship with Him.
In this one act, He answered some of the greatest questions I have. Whenever I am tempted to blurt out, “Lord, you don't know what it's like to be humiliated like this,” He points to the manger. Ah, now I understand; He does! When I cry out in my heart, "Lord, I deserve better than this," He silently points me to the manger, and the eloquent scene reminds me that He suffered this indignity, too. When I tell God, "You see all these injustices in my life, and you could change them; you have the power," He agrees with me, but then reminds me of the manger. Am I listening? Do I hear? Am I getting it? God was speaking a volume to me, but is the scene getting through?
This isn't the stuff of Christmas cards; it is the stuff of transformation. Why was it so hard to see? Why did it take so long before the message got through? Can I return to my comfortable home and not ponder this wonder? Can I ever pass a large hospital with all the comforts and amenities my society has to offer, or go into a hospital or home nursery, bright, clean, healthy and warm, and not marvel that my God lay in a manger?
I remember my children's rooms with their comfortable warm beds, and assorted new toys scattered about, and I feel my eyes getting moist. God help me if I ever pass a baby store again, jammed full of the comforts and luxuries available to offer my children and do not consider my God, lying in a manger. What's wrong with this picture? Not a thing!
This was a precious sign to me, my God, lying in a manger!
Though the manger scene is disturbing, the message it is meant to bring us is anything but. That primitive scene meant no less than the precious truth--we’re no longer alone.
REFLECTION AND CELEBRATION
Inevitably we end up driving or traveling a good deal around Christmas. This year, make the most of this activity by using it to help you get into the Christmas spirit. As you travel about keep a special eye out for hospitals. Each time you pass one, take a few moments to remember how your God was born.
Think about all the doctor’s, nurses, attendants, expensive equipment, and special medications available to ensure a safe and healthy delivery for today’s children. Let your mind wonder why God, who could have come in such glory, safety, security, and luxury decided instead to arrive so humbly.
Think of all the conveniences we have that He went without. Over and over keep asking yourself—why? And from now on, every time you see a nativity display—stop and ask yourself—what’s wrong with this picture? For those of you who are braver, when you visit a large nativity somewhere where many people congregate, dare to ask someone there, “Does this picture make sense to you? Why would the God of the universe enter our world in this manner?” If they don’t know—tell them. Tell them.
And finally, if you are feeling humiliated, if you feel you are deserving of more than you have, if you feel that life is treating you unjustly—remember the manger! What we suffer voluntarily, He suffered voluntarily. As His suffering had meaning, so does ours. This is the message from the manger!