There’s something special about Christmas. Even for people who don’t celebrate the birth of Christ, it’s a special time. Perhaps it’s all of the lights, the carols, the shopping, and the gift-giving. Whatever it is, it’s different from the rest of the year and that makes it special. But what really makes Christmas special is the birth of the Christ. Without that you don’t have Christmas.
I’m amazed at how we present the Christmas story. I don’t mean to be a Grinch, but we’ve sanitized Christmas; we’ve cleaned it all up, wrapped it in beautiful paper and put a bow on it. But Christmas wasn’t that way. It wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t tidy and warm. It was dirty and cold and hard. The Christmas story was a messy affair. A young teenager living in an obscure, dirty, poverty-stricken village in a remote corner of the Roman Empire became pregnant. Hardly an auspicious beginning. Can you imagine the scandal in a village where everyone knew everyone else and everyone else’s business?
Then there was the long, difficult journey to Bethlehem. Depending on the route they took it may have been one hundred miles. We often picture Mary riding on a donkey led by Joseph but that’s just conjecture. They probably both walked the entire distance; a pregnant woman walking on little more than a rough footpath, through streams, over mountains, in the hot sun, sleeping on the cold ground at night, eating cold meals. How tired and dirty do you think they were after a week (some estimates are that it took at least ten days) of living like that?
Things didn’t get much better when they arrived in Bethlehem. The best accommodation they could find was some type of stable, perhaps a cave where they kept animals. Again we don’t know much about it, only that the baby was laid in a trough that animals ate out of. Not one of those nice manger scenes that you can buy at Wal-Mart but a rough trough that still smelled like donkeys and goats and cows. I’m sure that Joseph did his best to make it clean and soft for his new-born son, but you can’t get rid of the smell of animals. This cave was cold, it had manure on the ground, the animals made noise, there was little if any privacy, you slept on the hay and bathed out of a bucket of icy water. Not exactly the Hilton hotel.
The worst part of the story was that no one in Bethlehem cared. They were all alone, just Joseph and Mary and a baby in a strange town. That’s how Christmas was. No lights, no carols, no gifts (the magi came later), no one to talk to, no one to help them. I’d like to think that the owner of the stable cared; that he gave them some food to ward off the hunger pains; that he loaned them some blankets on the cold nights; that he took an interest in these strangers. But we don’t know that. For all we know they were hungry, cold and lonely. That was Christmas. What do you think Mary would say if she could see how we celebrate Christmas today?
But here’s the best part of the story. Jesus knew all of that before He came – and He still came. In fact He wanted to come. And what about Joseph and Mary? I believe that they would do it all over again. Knowing how hard it would be, they would do it again because they knew Who He was and what He would do for us.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary exalted the One who had chosen her for this difficult yet glorious task:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth, all generations will call me blessed.
Yes, even today, 2000 years later, our generation still rises up and calls her blessed.
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