I always look forward to Christmas. I believe most people do. Christmas is a warm, fuzzy time. Families get together. They exchange Christmas cards and gifts. They have a big Christmas dinner. There are those charming Christmas carols. Even St. Nick adds to the nostalgia of Christmas. Granted, Christmas is a religious holiday, but even those who don’t profess to be Christians find Christmas to be an enchanting time of the year. Whatever our religious background, we all find a lot of pleasure in the Christmas season.
Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus. Of course, in celebrating His birth we also celebrate His life. And you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate Him and what He stood for. I think Jesus’ messages of loving your enemies and treating others the way you would like to be treated resonate with nonbelievers as much as with believers. Jesus taught us about a God who loves every human being, not just Christians or good people.
But let’s go back 2,000 years and take a second look at the story that Christmas is based on. Jesus’ conception and His birth were a scandal, not a warm, fuzzy family time. We don’t have to have been there to know that in that religiously conservative community, when Mary announced her pregnancy (or when it became too obvious to hide), the people would have gasped in shock and debated whether to stone her and her lover for fornication.
Today we picture her in a clear blue robe with a divine halo of purity surrounding her, but the minds of her contemporaries dressed her in scarlet and placed her in the red-light district, veiled in shame. They no doubt used many adjectives as they whispered about her behind her back, but I can assure you that virgin would not have been one of them. Scandal would have.
Then there’s the story of His birth. We show Him being born in a barn—but we sanitize it. In our nativity scenes the animals look on in awestruck wonder as they gather around the glowing babe. Mother Mary looks as rested as if she’d recently awakened from a relaxing vacation. Everybody’s clothes look like they just came pressed from the cleaners, and the baby Jesus lies serenely in a wooden cradle with a straw tick for a mattress. We want to bring Jesus’ birth into the mainstream, so we remake the manger scene into a hospital birthing suite.
But barns are smelly places. The floor of Joseph and Mary’s barn would have consisted of mud, straw, and manure. They’d just arrived in Bethlehem after an 80-mile trek from Nazareth, so they were probably bone tired and covered with sweat. Try re-creating all of that in your church’s Christmas pageant this Christmas season!
We bring the wise men into the manger scene to honor the baby Jesus with gifts, even though the Bible account has them coming much later. But Matthew puts an altogether different slant on the story. He showcases Herod’s deception, his jealousy, his thirst for raw power, and his scandalous murder of innocent infants just to maintain his own position. Our Christmas celebrations generally ignore this horrible massacre of innocent children. That’s scandalous!
And then notice to whom God announced the birth of the Messiah—not the religious leaders; not the politically elite; not the famous and wealthy. No, God announced the birth of His Messiah to shepherds, the lowlifes of the day, and Gentiles, whom the good religious people of the day considered to be so unclean that they wouldn’t even sit down to eat with them. That was too scandalous for the religious leaders to accept, and they rejected Him.
Illegitimacy tainted Jesus’ birth in the eyes of the community, and the stigma didn’t pass in the weeks, months, and years that followed. When Jesus, as an adult, confronted the religious leaders of His day over their pharisaical legalism, they chided him about his birth. “?‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested. ‘The only Father we have is God himself’?” (John 8:41). From their perspective, Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah screamed scandal, and that certainly didn’t fulfill their expectations of the coming Messiah!
Jesus’ claim to messianic status while being born illegitimately to working class nobodies like Joseph and Mary also conflicted with their religious and cultural expectations. The Messiah would surely be born of a priestly lineage! He would live in a richly adorned palace and lead Israel as a Warrior-King, befitting His title, “Son of David.”
But Jesus associated with the riffraff of society. He treated women with respect, and He associated with people like the Samaritans, whom society marginalized. He touched unclean lepers. He invited a hated tax collector into his most intimate group. He ministered to thieves and prostitutes. He allowed a woman of ill repute to drop her hair and anoint his feet with spikenard and tears. That was scandalous!
And in the context of a people expecting the Messiah to champion their cause and deliver them from their Roman masters, Jesus’ words to “not resist an evil person,” to “turn your other cheek,” to “let them have your tunic” and “go with [them] two miles” instead of just one were not only radical; they were offensive. Even one of His own disciples thought it was scandalous that the Messiah was willing to become a servant and wash dirty feet.
Who Jesus was
Jesus’ birth reminds us of where He came from before He was born. The apostle John said that He “was God,” and He “was with God” (John 1:1, 2), but He became one of us and “made his dwelling among us” (verse 14). And stop to think about who we are. Our minds are tainted with selfishness. Our world is filled with violence. And the Jesus we celebrate at Christmastime came down from heaven to live with us and save us from our scandalous lifestyles. He came to be “God with us” in order to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:23, 21). We can compare Jesus’ becoming a human being to my transforming my humanity into a maggot in a dung pile in order to save maggots.
And that, ultimately, is what Christmas is all about. In the midst of our Christmas carols and children reenacting the Nativity with their tinseled angel halos and bathrobe shepherd outfits, we need to remember that Christmas is about our own sinfulness and the depths to which God stooped to redeem us.
Jesus was beaten and stripped naked, after which He suffered a tortuous criminal’s death. And He endured this so He could save us from our sins. This redemption wasn’t just necessary for those horrible people in Jesus’ time but also for us. Our sins caused Him to be born for a cross. Now we face the scandal. Will we acknowledge Him as God and ourselves as imperfect humans in need of salvation? Will we recognize the horrific consequences of our sins and the unfathomable sacrifice of grace?
When angels in glory appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, they gave as a sign that Jesus would be wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12). Maybe even here we have taken Jesus’ circumstances and rewritten His culture to make a baby being wrapped in swaddling clothes normative. We need ask, “What made this a sign if it was the norm?”
Travelers in Jesus time, when taking long trips, would sometimes wrap a gauzelike cloth around their waists in which to wrap a corpse in case they or someone in their party died en route. This would allow them to preserve the body until they could reach an acceptable burial place. These grave dressings were referred to as “swaddling clothes.” And the King James Version says that after Jesus was born His mother “wrapped him in swaddling clothes” (verse 7).
Mary and Joseph had just come from a long trip. Might they have used their swaddling clothes to bundle Jesus? That would certainly have been symbolic of His ultimate purpose in coming to our earth!
So putting the picture together, God sends His son to Bethlehem, where the temple sheep await their fate as sacrifices. Scandalous! The Messiah will not be found in the homes of David’s descendants gathered in Bethlehem, for they have no room for him. Scandalous! God calls shepherds to go and find His sacrificial Lamb. Scandalous! The sign to them: they would find the Messianic Lamb of God wrapped in burial cloths and lying in a stone-tomb trough. Scandalous!
The scandal of Christmas confronts us with a God who was born to die so He could give life to His sinful children. What’s our response?