The snow is gently falling, while father is dragging the freshly cut tree from the forest. The lights of the cabin beckon lovingly, as mother and children wait for him on the front porch. Yes, it looks like it will be another Norman Rockwell kind of a Christmas...
The picture is lovely, idyllic, and usually hilariously unlike reality. If we were to paint a real Christmas picture, we might instead have brothers and sisters fighting like cats and dogs in the dining room while mother is struggling to keep them quiet while at the same time trying to keep the tree from falling over (again) so that she can decorate it.
Dad, meanwhile, would likely be at the table, looking over the budget. He would have a bottle of Tums nearby that he is popping like candy, while he sweats bullets trying to figure out how to both keep the lights on and at the same time buy gifts for Christmas.
When we face real world struggles at this blessed time of year, we often wonder where we have gone wrong. Why, we ask, can we not have a Christmas as peaceful as the very first one? Why can our holiday not be like a beautiful Christmas song, maybe like “Mary, Did You Know?” I am not knocking that song, it really is lovely. But do you realize the version of it we almost had to end up singing? It would go something like this:
“Mary did you know that your husband’s gone, he’s with a girl named Mable, Mary did you know, that you need a job, to put food on the table, did you know, that you are alone, to raise this baby boy, a normal peaceful home life, you never will enjoy, Mary did you know...”
The first Christmas? Norman Rockwell would shudder at the thought of painting it in all of its gritty reality. Matthew 1:18 tells us that Mary was “found” with child of the Holy Ghost. She did not boldly and with full faith and confidence say “Joseph, I have been overshadowed by the Holy Ghost, and even though I am still a virgin, I am pregnant with the Son of God.” No, she was “found” with child; she started to show, and Joseph started asking questions. She apparently could not think of a way to break the news to him, so he learned the hard way.
Matthew 1:19 tells us his reaction. He determined to divorce her. Espousal was much stronger than our engagement; it was more like marriage with no intimacy allowed until the actual ceremony. The only way to undo it was by divorce, and that is the route Joseph determined to take. Mary was very nearly made an unwed mother, she was very nearly alone to raise this precious child.
God spoke to Joseph through a dream, and explained everything to him. Joseph believed, and took Mary as his wife, though he obeyed the command not to be intimate with her till after the birth. The end of the difficulties? Not by a long shot. Though Micah 5:2 prophesied the birthplace of the Messiah as Bethlehem hundreds of years beforehand, Joseph and Mary were still a very long way away in Nazareth very late into the pregnancy. They either did not know, or ignored, or procrastinated.
And what golden trumpet sounding dulcet tones from heaven caused them to go to Bethlehem? None. What caused them to go to Bethlehem was a government mandate that everyone enroll for one of the least Christmas-like things imaginable: taxes. And when they obeyed, where did that put them? Five miles from Herod’s palace, near enough to be well within reach of his bloodthirsty plan to kill this newborn king.
In other words, the original Christmas was perhaps the most disjointed, stressful, frightening one ever. Whatever stress and turmoil you are facing this Christmas, do try to remember this: Christmas has never been about idyllic perfection, Christmas is about God working in the midst of all of our imperfection. Merry Christmas!
Bo Wagner is pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Mooresboro, N.C., a widely traveled evangelist, and author of several books, including a kid’s fiction book about the Battle of Chickamauga, “Broken Brotherhood.” He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.