One of my favorite things during the Christmas season is seeing the creative ways that people decorate their homes for the season. Growing up we would put ice sickle lights along the roofline and wreaths on the doors, but this year we didn’t get a ladder in time to put up lights. But many other people did decorate—and there are some really good ones. And one piece that’s nice to see is the nativity scene. I’ve seen quite a few in yards, in front of churches, and even the one that’s out in East End Park in Ellsworth.
And these nativity scenes are just one of the ways that we put the story of Jesus’ birth into art. We condense the Christmas story into a scene of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men, oxen, donkeys, and of course the baby Jesus all huddled under a makeshift stable. Paintings of the birth follow the pattern, and everyone always looks so serene and holy and, well, clean.
Ever notice that? There’s dirt, but no one is dirty. Mary has just given birth, but somehow she doesn’t ever seem to have a hair out of place. In fact, most traditional nativity scenes don’t seem to recognize that a birth has happened, even though there’s a baby there. Even our birth narrative from Luke’s gospel skips over the fact that a birth happened: “the time came for her to be delivered, and so she did.” It’s as if the actual birth itself is uncomfortable to mention.
Just shy of one year ago, I got to experience a little bit of what that scene probably really did look like. Hazel was born in a hospital, but I distinctly remember that it was not clean and tidy like the paintings of Jesus’ birth make it look like. And if there were blood and fluids and poop while we were in a very sanitary hospital, something tells me the birth of Jesus was an equally if not more messy affair.
With Bethlehem as packed as it was for the census, Mary and Joseph ended up on the main level rather than the guest room—our translation of “inn” isn’t quite right. See, homes in first-century Palestine would usually be two levels, with the upper room available for guests, and part of the lower level would house the animals. The floor was made of packed dirt. A hearth for cooking was probably there. The animals had a feeding trough dividing their space from the humans’. That was where Mary went into labor. And all that was involved in giving birth, without the benefit of modern medicine, happened right there in the home. The pushing, the pain, the blood, the shouts of encouragement, the prayers for a safe delivery, and the wail of a newborn. And this—in all its messiness—is how God chose to enter the world.
The fact that God became incarnate in this way: choosing to be carried in a womb, nurtured in the uterus of a woman who cooed and sang and spoke to him, who laughed when he rolled and kicked, and pleaded with him when he wouldn’t get off of her bladder; who chose to be protected by this woman and her husband on a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and was born with blood and meconium and amniotic fluids—the fact that God came into the world like that has always been an uncomfortable truth for some.
But if we sanitize the way that God chose to enter the world, we end up thinking God needs us to be sanitized as well. On some level, we can’t come to a God whose birth was so sparklingly clean until we become sparkly clean ourselves. It becomes our priority to scrub off the stains of sin before we come near God, so that we don’t soil the holy presence with our less-than-perfect selves. This walk of faith becomes more about living up to God’s perfection than about living by God’s hope.
So we boil the faith down to a set of rules. Do this, don’t do that. Keep your nose clean so you can get into heaven. Don’t gamble; don’t swear; don’t drink. Come to church, read your Bible, pray before you eat and for goodness’ sake don’t forget about putting Christ in Christmas! If you’re good enough you can enter God’s presence. And if God’s birth was so holy and so clean that even Mary was undisturbed by it, then we have to conclude that there must be some truth to this claim that we need to get ourselves clean for Jesus.
But the birth of God wasn’t like that. Instead, in Jesus God came to us first, before we had our stuff together. God looked at the world as it is, and it is messy. There are no clear lines between righteous people and sinners. Really good people still have moments where they are unnecessarily cruel. Monsters can still have a soft spot for babies and animals. The joy of birth is still marked by the stain of blood. And in the midst of that chaos and mess, God decided to act first, and dive into it.
That’s the wonder of remembering the mess that was the birth of Jesus. It’s good to remember that there was dirt, and sweat, and blood, and poop for cryin’ out loud. God didn’t just become like a human being in Jesus; God became human in every possible way. And God became a human in Jesus to show us that there was nothing that could possibly get in the way of the love God was bringing to us. There was no mess God wasn’t willing to get into to save us from ourselves. God was willing to become one of us, fully and totally, just to prove that we are never too far gone to find God’s love.
So every Christmas I hope we remember that Jesus’ birth was definitely a mess. And thank God for that. Amen.