Nativity. noun. According to Google, “The occasion of a person’s birth.”
What were you thinking, in your last moments in heaven?
You must have known what was about to happen. You settled in the womb of a human girl. You, who created oceans and redwood forests, were no bigger than a speck of sawdust. As you grew, you made your mother’s ankles swell and back ache, right up until your birth. And that was no party either.
We make that story sound so rustic and sweet. At the nativity scene, the hay is fragrant, the sheep nuzzle you gently, the stars twinkle like Christmas lights. Your adoring audience enter the scene softly and kneel, glowing in your radiance. It’s like a lovely, pastoral barn baby shower. The country charm of your birth would have been splashed all over Pinterest and sparked the latest trend in midwifery.
But let’s get real. In modern terms, your birth would have raised eyebrows among the proper set. According to the retelling of the nativity my pastor shared last week, your momma might have been a young Latina who rode with her flannel-wearing fiancé on a motorcycle to Bethlehem. There was no room for them in janky motel rooms, so you were born in a parking garage. Sketchy-looking homeless men left their garbage can fires and bowed before you while Joseph warily looked on.
This whole story is ridiculous.
The lips that breathed world-forming words cannot speak. The eyes that saw the creation of seas and sky cannot see past a mother’s face. And if that’s not crazy enough, your first moments as a human were uncomfortable, unsanitary, and unpleasant. You deserved the best our weary world could offer: expert birth coaches, plush blankets, a cushioned cradle. And instead you got a frantic father, scratchy straw, and a feed trough laced with cow spit.
This real, gritty nativity chafes against my comfortable, middle-class ideas about Christmas. I’d prefer ornaments preserving Baby’s First Christmas, 0 A.D., and flannel onesies. The innkeeper could have at least strung up some mood lighting. There is no sparkle, no glamour, no grandeur to this story.
The rest of your life was just as messy. You were a refugee, got acne, felt sawdust stick in your eyes, befriended a guy named Judas, died cruelly. You felt the same hunger and disappointment and loneliness and pain we all do.
As you looked from heaven, the last glimpses from omniscience, you saw all of this, the limiting bonds of human form you would strap yourself in.
Why did you do it?
My Sunday School coaching makes me think I know the answer. I nod and say that you loved us, you wanted to be with us, you wanted to say “I understand,” because you would and do.
But those answers still ring hollow when faced with the reality of the Lord of the universe crying between cows. The mystery of Emmanuel, God with us, is one I cannot solve. I can rattle off verses about your love and say that I’ve felt it. But I cannot comprehend what wild, tender, ferocious love would look down at the mess of humanity and willingly dive in.
Today, we are still a mess. Like ancient Israel, we wait for whispers of hope, that you have not forsaken us. The news blazes with gunshot wounds and angry protests and hungry children and raging militants. My own life, though small and simple, shouts in need of salvation. My soul longs for fulfillment, craving peace and stability and quiet reassurance that hope can break through darkness.
You do not back down, glance away from humanity’s clamoring, writhing under sin. Two thousand years ago, you slipped straight into the muck. You did not shy away from stink and germs and temptation and betrayal. Neither do you shy away from the mess of our world and my life. You promise that you are still here today, remaining God with us.
Sometimes it’s hard to see you. Had I been in Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve, I doubt I would have ventured to the stable to visit. I would have covered my ears to the pounding at the door, blamed the flashing lights on obnoxious drunken travelers, and curled deeper in my blankets. I would have hugged my mirage of security and peace tight, unaware that the source of true Peace was lying helpless among animals. Today, I need to see you, to unwrap the real nativity from its glittery trappings that hint at magic but never fulfill.
As Christmas draws near, help me see you in the midst of the mess. Teach me to marvel at the mystery of God with us. Draw me to you, the sacrificial baby borne from heaven to the dirt and pain of real life. Help me accept your gift of incomprehensible, earth-shaking love.