I hope your Christmas was as delightful as ours. The morning was quite leisurely—just hanging out in our pajamas and waiting for our daughter and her husband to arrive. Our son stayed over night last night after the Christmas Eve service, and we watched It’s a Wonderful Life together before going to bed. He and I had wonderful conversations and plenty of laughs this morning.
That was after I got up at 4:30 a.m. to place baby Jesus in the manger. Knowing of our tradition, my son-in-law last night placed Mary in a supine position (unbeknownst to me) to simulate her posture in labor. I chuckled when I saw it this morning, but I wasn’t sure at that point who the culprit was. I found out later it was Micah. I told him that Mary probably delivered her child on a birthing stool while holding onto an overhead rope. He said he’ll try to simulate that next year, and we’re all eager to see what he comes up with!
I made hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and we had a special blend of Brazilian coffee to help wake up. I then set out all the Christmas candy and goodies we’ll be grazing on over the next several days when the out-of-town family members arrive tomorrow. Many of these treats were selected because they’re the same kinds we had in my childood:
Milk and dark choloclate Wilbur buds; milk and dark choloclate covered pretzels; red and green Hershey kisses; red and green M&Ms; red and green peanut butter cups; chocolate filled straws; nonpareils; and choclate-mint truffles. The cookie collection includes peanut butter blossoms, sugar cutouts, and chocolate chips.
Before we opened our gifts, I read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2. I got a bit emotional—as I do almost every year—because I was reading from the Bible that belonged to my dearly departed father-in-law, who was also a pastor. We then gathered around the manger to remember Emmanuel, “God with us.” After that, the kids served as elves and distributed the gifts.
There are far too many presents to mention here, but I’ll note two from the kids that captured my heart. First, my son gave me an incredibly unique wooden Phillies mug—made out of an actual bat! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow morning! My daughter and son-in-law made me a gift that got me super choked up. It’s a cricut canvas that says, “Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices.” That’s a line from the hauntingly beautiful Christmas carol “O Holy Night,” the same one we were singing to my mom when she passed away.
We then had Christmas dinner, which consisted of oven-baked turkey, Pennsylvania Dutch potato filling, green beans, dried (Cope’s) corn, salad, crescent rolls, apple pie, and sparkling cider. All of us are stuffed. And grateful.
We’re now watching a movie as the day winds down. It was Micah’s turn to make the selction this year, and he chose Elf, which is one of his favorites.
I’m so glad we don’t live in a world where it’s “always winter and never Christmas,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis. Rather, the manger is full. And so are our hearts.
God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick.
Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.
Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him.
No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us.
Are we listening?
The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.
For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before.
We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this:
Men are homesick in their homes And strangers under the sun… But our homes are under miraculous skies Where Christmas was begun.
If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator.
God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.
Even if you’re a wizard.
Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.
Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!
From majesty to manger. Heaven to hay. Blessedness to Bethlehem. The eternal Christ came all the way down. The trip no doubt was long and difficult. In fact, it was impossible. An infinite journey by definition can never reach its destination. Yet Jesus entered our realm and arrived safely on that first Christmas Day.
We call it the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” wrote Charles Wesley. “Hail th’incarnate Deity.” Theologians have tried to articulate it, but maybe it’s better left a mystery to be adored than a concept to be explained.
After all, how could we ever fathom stepping out of eternity and entering into time? How could we ever comprehend coming from a place of pure light and entering into a womb of utter darkness? How could we ever wrap our minds around leaving the world of invisible spirit and entering into the world of visible flesh? Christmas is the profoundest of all God’s miracles.
Maybe a better question than how he did it is why he did it. Scripture gives us many answers to that question, so perhaps we can summarize them all like this: God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. That’s why he took the impossible journey—for us.
Athanasius said of Christ, “He became what we are, so that he might make us what he is,” that is, children of God bearing the image of God in all of his beauty, truth, and goodness. Here. Now. On earth. Indeed, Jesus is our down-to-earth God.
Moreover, Jesus kept going lower and lower to serve us while he was here. Yes, he descended from heaven to earth in his incarnation. But then he descended to the lowest point of the earth in his baptism—the Jordan Rift Valley. Then he fell to his knees before the crucifixion to wash his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and pray for strength in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Finally, he descended below the earth in his death and burial on our behalf. Love keeps going lower and lower to reach the lowest. Love bends down to lift up the fallen.
In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Seltzer, a surgeon, tells of a poignant moment in the hospital when he caught a glimpse of this kind of love. It was a love that reoriented his entire life. He writes:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve—the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be like this from now on. Oh, the surgeon had carefully followed the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it will always be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent.
Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles, and he looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once, I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with [such people]. The groom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.
Here is a groom not put off by his bride’s unfortunate distortion, but one who bends down to meet it, reassuring her of his abiding love. How much more does our heavenly groom do that for his people?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus bent all the way down to meet us where we are, kissing a broken planet disfigured by sin. He did so to reassure us of his abiding love.
Gregory was right. Remaining what he was, Jesus became what he was not. Knowing this, how could we ever remain what we are?
“And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
Our neighbors across the street have a nativity scene in their front yard. It’s simple, wooden, monochrome, and two-dimensional. It’s understated, sparsely lit, and lovely in its own way. It’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous because I can go by it every day and not be jolted by the shock of what it communicates.
A manger? Seriously? Is that where they placed the baby Jesus after his delivery was complete and his cord was cut? A place where animals nuzzled their feed just moments prior and insects foraged for their own microsopic morsels? It’s a bit crude, don’t you think? As the old carol says, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” The temptation is to scoff at such an account.
But if the Son of God came into our world two thousand years ago as a baby—as a real person joined to our humanity—and his first bassinet on the planet was a feeding trough for animals, might there be something in that detail that needs our attention? Might there be more here than meets the eye? What might God be trying to say to us through the startling semiotics of this well-known scene in my neighbor’s yard?
Whatever it is, not only did it make sense to the shepherds, it set them into motion. The Christ child as described—swaddled in strips of cloth and lying in a manger—was a meaningful “sign” to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth (Luke 2:17). What are we to make, then, of the swaddling clothes and the manger bed, which figure so prominently in the original Christmas story?
We’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accordance with Jewish prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:5-6). The word Bethlehem means “house of bread,” or “house of food.” The Arabic cognate means “house of meat” or “house of flesh.” It may have been known to the ancients as something of a food court—a corridor of lodging and hospitality for travelers. King David was born there a thousand years before Jesus. David, of course, was Israel’s leader who established the temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built under the reign of Solomon, his son.
The temple was the center of worship and sacrifice in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on the high holy days. Where did all those lambs come from? They came from the fields in Bethlehem, located about 4.5 miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless—without blemish or imperfection—or they could not be offered at the temple.
The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet when they’re born, and they can slip and slide quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of soft hay so it wouldn’t fall and bruise itself. If they did, they couldn’t be used in worship.
But these weren’t just any old cloths used to wrap the newborn lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white garments worn by Jewish priests during their daily rituals. After regular use, those garments got so covered in blood, filth, and dirt, they had to be swapped out for new ones.
Normally, the priests didn’t just get rid of their old robes. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them. The U.S. military has a similar view of old flags. They don’t just throw them away; they remove them from regular use with certain ceremonies and procedures for honorable disposal. The same was true with old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.
“This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told. They would go on to see a human baby wrapped in blood-stained priest garments. To a Bethlehem shepherd, such a sight would be loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He’ll be a bloodied priest himself someday in order to accomplish your salvation. He’s the child born to die a sacrificial death.”
God was speaking their language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first.
First-century mangers may have been made out of wood, but numerous stone mangers have been found in the region. As is the case today today, mangers served as food bins for animals. But it’s important to note that nowhere in the infancy narratives do we read that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave. The stable-cave setting is inferred because of the biblical references to a “manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). A better understanding of first-century culture makes the stable-cave setting unnecessary, though it certainly remains a possibility.
We need to go on a myth-busting journey here to sharpen our focus. The Bible neither states nor implies that Mary and Joseph were in a hurry to get to Bethlehem, or that they had just barely made it before the final contractions. Such ideas find their origin not in the Gospels but in a third-century novella. The myth has been perpetuated in stories, art, and film ever since (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth, The Nativity Story, etc.).
In many films today, Mary is “ten centimeters dilated and ready to push” while still riding on the donkey (also not in the text) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But Scripture and logic both tell us that Mary and Joseph had sufficient time to find suitable lodging and make preparations for the delivery. “While they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6, KJV). That is, at some point during the unspecified period of time that Mary and Joseph had already been in Bethlehem, Mary came to term and delivered her baby.
As a descendant of King David, Joseph would have had no trouble finding relatives (even distant ones) to lodge with inside “the town of David.” If my wife had ever gone back to a certain region in Hickory, North Carolina while eight or nine months pregnant and said, “I’m Lester Taylor’s granddaughter, and I need a place to stay to deliver my baby,” she would have had no difficulty whatsoever in finding a sympathetic relative to take her in. (Lester Taylor was a well-known farmer in the area, and he had fourteen children back in the day, many of whom still live in that town.)
New Testament scholar Kenneth E. Bailey argues that pregnant women receive special attention in nearly every culture, especially if they’re about ready to deliver their first child. Furthermore, the honor of all Bethlehem was at stake in caring for a pregnant woman from out of town. Given the unwritten hospitality rules and customs of the Middle East in ancient times, rejection of a pregnant woman is unthinkable.
But wasn’t there “no room” for the holy family in any of the local hotels (cf. Luke 2:7)? That’s a vast over-reading (and therefore a misreading) of the story. The text does not mention an inn keeper who turned away Joseph and Mary. Moreover, note the layout of a typical Middle Eastern home in the first century:
What’s labeled as a “stable” on the left end of this diagram is similar to our attached garages today—an extra room built off the side of a house where farm equipment and other household items could be stored. The house itself features a main “family room” and a “guest room.”
Animals were typically kept in the house at night to provide extra heat, prevent theft, and keep the elements off of them. For example, we read in 1 Samuel 28:24, “Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house….” Additionally, consider Jephthah’s famous vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). Jephthah fully expected an animal to come out of his house, not a person.
Luke 2:7 reads, “She [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma].” A kataluma is a “guest room” (cf. Luke 22:11), not an “inn.” A pandocheion is an “inn” (cf. Luke 10:34). That’s not the word used in the infancy narrative.
It’s likely that Mary and Joseph were granted the use of someone’s family room or “garage” in a house, since the guest room was already in use, possibly due to the influx of people because of the census. A manger was available, then, as a cradle in the house. So, Jesus may have been born in a garage-like room attached to a house, with mangers setting around for the animals sheltering in place overnight.
Nothing in this reconstruction minimizes the shock of the Christ child being laid in a manger. It’s still a feeding trough for animals. It’s still a crude bassinet in a crowded, makeshift room, not a satin-sheet crib in a royal palace. The point is that God ensured the safe delivery of his own Son on earth and sent a powerful message to those who first saw it. What was that message?
Christmas means the end of haughtiness. It’s the end of snobbery. It’s the end of pretense. It’s the end of airbrushing ourselves and preening for the camera or the academy. Oswald Chambers once said: “Beware of posing as a profound person—God became a baby.” There’s a powerful message in the manger, and it’s this: God is humble. God is gentle. God is winsome. God is relational. What’s more accessible and unassuming than an infant? What’s more inviting and endearing than a newborn baby?
Here, too, God’s wisdom is on full display. People want to be attracted to faith, not coerced into it. They want something that’s beautiful, true, and good, not pompous, overbearing, and intimidating. Bethlehem’s manger gives them all that and more. It’s the most disarming invitation there is to genuine faith. Besides, religion says, “Work your way up to God.” Christmas says: “God has worked his way down to you.” All the way down. The Prince of Peace comes in peace. He comes as a baby. And that must mean the end of all pomposity on our part. God doesn’t need to show off, so neither do his people.
During World War II, a man named John Blanchard was a lieutenant in the Navy. At one point he checked out a book from the library that had previously belonged to somebody else. Even though he liked the book, the thing he appreciated most were the handwritten notes in the margins. A woman who lived in New York City had written all of her own notes in the white space, and Blanchard loved those notes.
He was intrigued by their wisdom and insight, and he started getting attracted to the mind of the person who wrote them. Her name was on the inside of the book, so, with a little bit of effort, he discovered where she lived, and he wrote to her. Her name was Hollis.
During the war, they wrote back and forth. They had wonderful correspondence, and it turned into a deep friendship. Blanchard had the utmost admiration for her, but he also had an imagination of what she looked like. He asked her for a picture, but she never sent one.
Finally, the war was over, and Blanchard was coming home. He had arranged to meet Hollis at Grand Central Station at a particular spot at 7:00 p.m. Her last letter said, “Hey, we don’t know what each other looks like, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand at a particular place, and you’ll know me because I’ll be wearing a great big red rose on my lapel.”
Blanchard got out of the train, walked over to this spot, and he saw two women there. One was young and beautiful, and the other was much older, much heavier, and much dowdier than he had imagined. That was the woman wearing the big red rose. Blanchard stopped in his tracks. As he waited there, the pretty woman walked away, and the woman with the red rose on her lapel stood there looking for somebody.
Blanchard said, “I was split. I felt choked up by the bitterness of my disappointment, but so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had connected with mine and upheld me during the war, I thought, ‘Well, this won’t be love and romance, but it could be something precious, maybe a friendship for which I would always be grateful.’” So, he swallowed hard and summoned up his courage. He walked over to the woman and said, “Hello, I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard. You must be Hollis. I’m so glad to meet you. May I take you to dinner?”
She smiled and said, “Son, I have no idea who you are or what this is all about, but the young lady who was just standing here beside me—who walked away—she said I should wear this big red rose on my lapel. And only if you asked me to dinner should I tell you she’s waiting for you in that restaurant across the street.”
Blanchard knew what was most important in a person—not external beauty, however lovely it may be—but a beauty deeper down. A beauty of soul. A beauty of personhood in its totality.
The beauty of Jesus is not the beauty of this world. It’s actually better. Deeper. Richer. More authentic. Underneath the crudeness of the manger is the beautiful, disarming humility of God.
“Why lies he in such mean estate?” Because God doesn’t want to scare us off. He wants to have a relationship with us—freely chosen and warmly embraced. And nothing communicates that truth better than a feeding trough. So, come to the manger that holds the Messiah. He’s in a food bin so we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
May every nativity set we see this year jolt us a bit rather than just blending into the background. God has something to say to us through it. Something that can make our own lives beautiful, too.
Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn king.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; christianitytoday.com; israelmyglory.org; sketch derived from Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.