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The Messiness of Christmas

Often, Christmas is a time of making sure everything is just right. We sing of joy coming to the world, we read poetry of how stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and we mail Christmas cards imprinted with picturesque photographs of our family with eyes all aglow.

We talk about making sure we are on the nice list rather than the naughty one, so we are all on our best behavior.  We decorate our homes to the hilt with sparkling lights, glimmering tinsel and family heirlooms. We seek to purchase the perfect gift for every member of the family, wrapping them in colorful paper with bows on top.

We host Christmas parties, sing church cantatas and welcome extended family in our homes. We bake delicious goodies to share with friends, neighbors and coworkers, while sparing no expense for our Christmas Day feast. For most of us, the Christmas season is a time to shimmer and shine.

Yet, this Advent, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on the messiness of the Christmas story.

I consider the plight of Mary, who received a message from Gabriel that she was with child but it was not with her betrothed partner, even though by custom they already would have pledged their vows to each other. I try to imagine the shame of being in a Middle Eastern culture, pregnant out of wedlock. The thought of trying to explain this to her parents, let alone her hopeful spouse, would have been unnerving. The law prescribed for her to be executed, which surely scared Mary to death.

There is little doubt Mary became the talk of the town and the scowl of the religious leaders in Nazareth. All indications are that Joseph did not take this news well initially. Rather than kill her, Joseph chose to divorce Mary, probably killing her dreams for the future and leaving her survival uncertain.

Mary left Nazareth in haste, which likely was due to the messiness of her relationships with family, friends and the religious leaders of the synagogue. She traveled, perhaps alone or in the company of a small band of friends or family members, journeying the 80 miles to Ein Karem, a western suburb of Jerusalem in the hill country of Judea.

Perhaps looking for a safe place to meditate, hopeful for answers from God and clarity about her future, Mary stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah for most of her first and second trimesters, witnessing the birth of John and the miraculous unleashing of his father’s mute tongue. Mary, perhaps as her cousin’s midwife, participated in the messiness of childbirth, foreshadowing her own future experience.

Encouraged but still quite uncertain about her destiny, Mary returned to Nazareth. It is here she found Joseph in quite a different demeaner than before her trip. The one who was ready to divorce her before their marriage feast now speaks of his own dream and a renewed determination to raise Mary’s child as his own.

Yet, just as all the plans solidified, they received the unexpected notice that Joseph must travel to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem for registration of future taxation by the Roman emperor. Choosing to remain by his side, even at great risk, Mary traveled the 90 miles to Bethlehem (most likely on foot) with her future husband.

Upon arrival in Bethlehem, they were left to give birth to Mary’s child in an animal barn, a quite messy and foul-smelling place. Perhaps because there was limited space in the homes of relatives due to the throngs of people who returned for the census but more likely due to the cultural and social discomfort of giving birth in the company of other family members and distant relatives, they elected to birth the Savior of the world among the humblest of creatures.

Mary was not surrounded by medical experts to care for her throughout the birthing process, and no epidural was available. In a world where about one in three mothers died in childbirth, Mary did not know for sure if she would live to see her child walk let alone grow into adulthood. As the blood and fluid flowed and Jesus entered the world, no one would have anticipated that both would flow again at his crucifixion. Birth, like death, is messy.

Shepherds later joined the animals in the stable. Among the lowliest of professions, the summoning of these shepherds announced that this king is unlike those born triumphantly in a palace.

Yet even in his early years, Jesus was viewed contemptuously by another king. Herod, a non-sovereign monarch, feared this child’s birth, issuing an edict reminiscent of that of pharaoh: all male children two years and younger were to be killed. What a messy bloodbath.

Fleeing to Egypt and unsure of their future, Mary and Joseph sought to safeguard the young toddler divinely entrusted to their care. According to tradition, they spent more than six months in a dingy cave hundreds of miles from Herod’s clutches until the king’s death. Then they returned to Nazareth, perhaps finally to face their internal demons and societal haters. The scorn and degradation were only beginning for Jesus, who continued to be ridiculed by those of his hometown even as he began his rabbinic ministry.

The first Christmas is anything but glitz and glamor; it is a story of pain, uncertainty and fear. Nonetheless, instead of seeing this as a dark and grim origin story that contrasts the bright and joyous events of our modern Christmases, it speaks of an even greater truth — God enters into our mess with us.

This Christmas is most likely not “pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue” for you, either. Many of us and those around us are grieving the death of loved ones who passed away this year, pricked by the reminder of their absence at our holiday gatherings. For some, the holidays bring feelings of inadequacy and fear that they will not be able to pay the bills or buy the gifts they hope to share with others.

For the unhomed, the displaced, the hospitalized and the incarcerated, there is no fireplace to stay warm or Christmas tree to sit around. Christmas comes on the calendar, but it is no respecter of the trauma that comes along with it.

Just as on the night of the first Christmas, God enters into these messy places with us. God does not remove all the heartache, loneliness and angst. God sits with us in the muck and the mire of our distress. God walks with us through the darkness. God cries with us in our pain.

Just as Jesus took on flesh and pitched his tent among us, so God returns to us in the midst of our brokenness time and again. Joy comes not to the world once, but time and again joy reenters the agony of our lives as we experience the advent of Jesus anew each day.

So, this Christmas, embrace the messiness. More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus entered into the messiness of a broken family of imperfect people who were unsure of the future and struggled to understand the complexities of life, and he seeks to enter into your messiness this Christmas.

May you find the gift of Emmanuel, the God who is with us, in the messiness of Christmas.


Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he now leads a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.