Putting the Mess Back in the Manger
I love the Christmas story. It’s so beautifully poetic. We always read the Christmas story from Luke 2 to our kids on Christmas Eve. It’s part of our Christmas tradition. We eat homemade pizzas while we read. We love to drive around after dinner and see all the Christmas lights in our neighborhood, too. There’s a place nearby that somehow creates a light show set to music that you can hear on the FM dial in the car. No idea how that technology happens! We open presents from each other, then head to bed awaiting Santa (AKA, I’m up most of the night). It really is the most wonderful time of the year.
But while it’s full of wonder, twinkling lights, presents and homemade pizza (at least in our house!), the story has lost a lot of its inherent messiness and dirt today. When we think of the sites, sounds and smells of Christmas, twinkling lights, holiday tunes and pine tree scents come to mind. But the sites, sounds and smells we associate to Christmas today couldn’t be further from the first-century Christmas experience.
Think about how the first Christmas came to be:
- A census was declared: Have you ever been to the DMV? Good grief! It leaves much to be desired—site, smell and sound included! Worse, this first-century census required people to travel to their original hometown. How many of us ran as far away as we could from our hometown? Now consider going back to your hometown DMV. No thank you!
- The fun of holiday travel: If you think your holiday travel is difficult, try traveling over four days, prego, on a donkey. Did I mention you were pregnant? Oh the sites, smells and sounds. I remember my wife going into labor just as Atlanta rush hour began. It was an UGLY trip…in our car, with our AC, on the way to a hospital. And it took an hour, not four days.
- Manger labor and delivery: I have four kids, and I was present at each of their births. We were in a hospital. We had doctors and nurses. Not ONCE did a sheep come into the room. No other animals were there, either. Heck, they wouldn’t even allow more than two other adults to be in the room, much less shepherds! The results were beautiful, but the process… I will not review the sites, smells and sounds of labor and deliver. Use your imagination…
- Shepherd visiting hours: We know that angels led several shepherds to the manger where they (and their sheep) found the 6lb 8oz baby Jesus. They didn’t have all those hand-sanitizing stations that we take for granted today. Instead, they had sheep. I wonder if Joseph was stressed out trying to keep the sheep away from the baby?
- The eighth day…circumcision: Enough said.
We recreate this nativity moment with big, plastic statues or beautiful ceramic decorations in our home. We attend Christmas pageants with live nativity scenes that are really just glorified petting zoos. But the first Christmas was anything but neat, clean and tidy. It was a mess. A complete mess, I bet. We believe many Jews struggled to embrace Jesus because he was a baby, rather than a grand king. Maybe that is true. Or maybe they had trouble because the entire process was a complete mess! Kind of un-God-like.
If God is God, couldn’t he have found a room in some inn? Created a vacancy in the Bethlehem Motel 8? Couldn’t he have delayed the census a few months? Or just cancelled it? Couldn’t he have allowed an early labor to begin so Mary could have avoided the trip—a four-day-donkey-prego-smelly-dirty-are-we-there-yet trip? Why didn’t God clean up the story to match our petting zoo nativity? We make a better nativity than God made!
Here’s what I think: I believe God allowed Jesus to be born into a mess because it represents his willingness to enter our mess. Our lives are a mess outside of Jesus. They look nothing like the polished marble manger scene on our mantel. Rather, our life is pretty filthy, gross and smelly. It looks ironically similar to the manger scene into which the Savior of the world was born.
The manger puts Jesus at the center of a mess, not a masterpiece. Jesus came to the manger because humanity needed to be rescued. Not rescued from a sanitized petting zoo, but from a filthy, dirty stable. It was a mess, just like us!
If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize our life looks way more like the first-century manger scene than what’s on our mantel. We’re messed up. We’re sinful. The sites, smells and sounds of our life leave much to be desired. We stink.
But the manger teaches us that Jesus is fine with the mess. He’s used to the smell. And he loves us enough to enter the mess right slap in the middle. If you struggle to understand how a perfect God can love an imperfect person, stop looking at your mantel nativity and gander at what it represents. Jesus didn’t mind the mess of the manger, and he doesn’t mind our mess, either.
This Christmas season, maybe we could mess up our manger scene a little. Maybe we could make Jesus the centerpiece of a mess, not a masterpiece. Because in reality, Jesus came into the mess to save the mess. A mess like you and me.
This article originally appeared here.