The Christmas season is now upon us and I’ve been looking at Christmas cards of various types and have found myself wondering what they actually say about the Christmas message. It seems that all kinds of images have edged their way into the celebrations.
There are snowy landscape scenes, Christmas trees, robins, Santa on a reindeer-drawn sleigh, teddy bears and very cute grey mice. There are also images that we would recognise as Christian: a nativity scene with a night sky complete with the star and wise men. There are also angels, but not in general the type who would ever need to announce ‘Fear not’ – a bit too cuddly for that. There is always serenity in these scenes and usually an abundance of halos hovering over beautiful heads.
Inside the cards we find great words like, love, goodwill, cheer, happiness, warmth, seasons greeting. It’s great that we express these wonderful sentiments and that we remember our friends, especially those we don’t see very often.
But as writer Philip Yancey notes, when we turn to the Gospels the accounts of that very first Christmas have a very different tone and there is a great deal of disruption and edginess.
Mary and Joseph must face the shame and judgement of their family and neighbours. Joseph himself had a lot to deal with – how could he believe Mary’s strange tale of angels and messages from God, let alone what now was apparent in her widening girth? They had to travel at the wrong moment and when they arrived there was no place for them to stay so this promised baby was born in the humblest of places.
The Christmas cards and the reality of that first Christmas have little in common, and contrary to what we would like to believe, Christmas didn’t simplify life on planet Earth. Mary was ‘greatly troubled’ and ‘afraid’ when the angel appeared and all that Mary could think to say was, “But I’m a virgin”. To be an unmarried mother at that time was to invite shame on your family and in this case on Joseph. No wonder she was deeply troubled.
Joseph agreed to divorce Mary rather than denounce her until the angel corrected his perception. But it couldn’t have been easy for him or his family. Did he drag Mary along to Bethlehem with him to spare her the shame of giving birth in her home village?
CS Lewis wrote, ‘The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as a spear – a Jewish girl at her prayers’. Today as I read the accounts of Jesus’ birth I tremble to think of the fate of the world resting on the responses of these two vulnerable (people). How many times did Mary review the angel’s words as she felt the Son of God kicking against the walls of her uterus? How many times did Joseph second-guess his own encounter with an angel – just a dream? – as he endured the hot shame of living among villagers who could plainly see the changing shape of his fiancée?
… It seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favouritism.
As we enter the waiting period that is Advent perhaps contemplating these things may help us to understand something more of God’s great plan for salvation.
Tony and I wish you all a very blessed Christmas in all its many dimensions.