I love a good nativity set. Maybe you have one that was painted by a loved one in a ceramics class, or a store bought one made of resin or plastic. They show everyone in the story all at once, placed strategically to create a beautiful tableau of that joyful, first Christmas. The problem with nativity sets is they’re made of wood or clay or plastic. It makes it easy to miss the humanity of this story.
As Christians, we can’t lump this story with all the other fictional tales we hold dear this season. Scrooge has a great message for us, but Charles Dickens made it up. Ralphie didn’t shoot his eye out and Kevin McCallister didn’t get left at home. But Mary did encounter an angel. And she had to have a hard conversation with her betrothed about the baby she was carrying. They traveled roughly 90 miles late in her pregnancy. And she was a human. She had swollen feet and stretch marks and cravings just like any other pregnant woman in history. Joseph wanted to start a family, but I imagine he never dreamed it would happen like that. He planned to quietly call off the wedding but an angel came to him in a dream to tell him Mary wasn’t lying. And so he stayed by her side. But let’s not think for a moment it wasn’t hard for him. Even back then, people talk. And they can do math.
So, they take a trip to be counted so the Roman government can tax them even more. They arrive after roughly a four day trip only to find crowds of people and no place to stay. They do their best in a stable behind the inn, but it’s dirty and drafty. Suddenly, Mary feels a pain. She’s forced to give birth in a city far from home without her family or support system. I’m sure in those painful moments they both thought to themselves, “God, is this really your great plan for our people? Here in this pile of hay with the animals looking on?” They were encountering God himself, but they were humans.
The shepherds were regular people too. It was lambing season and they had to stay with their flocks in case one of the females gave birth in the night. They were the Bethlehem night shift workers. Just trying to make it to morning when they could get a little sleep, when all the sudden an angel appeared. The text says they were terrified. I can understand why. When my oldest daughter was about four, she was playing with her Little People nativity and she held up the angel and said, “Don’t be a-scared. It’s gonna be great.” That’s all I can think of when I see the Angel of the Lord speaking to the shepherds. To me, it’s the perfect summary of what the angel says.
And if that wasn’t startling enough, a big group angels appeared and said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” And then, the shepherds go. It doesn’t say they gathered up the flock and left, they just dropped everything and went to find the baby.
While we’re on the subject of dropping everything. The Magi. They knew something was going on in the sky. Something unexplained. They weren’t Jews, but they knew about the prophecies of the coming king. They came from the East to worship the baby. They saw the star and they followed it. They had to explain themselves to the hot-headed Jewish king Herod in order to enter his land without conflict. They did this because they believed something was happening in Bethlehem worth witnessing. They didn’t just stumble down the aisle toward the baby like all the Christmas plays we did when we were kids. They traveled roughly 1,000 miles in the desert. And they were real people. With flesh and blood. They sweated and got thirsty. They probably thought their journey would never end, but it did and their gifts were still in tact.
And then there was Jesus, who was and is God. But he came to earth as a baby who cried and wet his diaper and needed his mother to feed him because although he was God, he was also a human. We celebrate this, one of the greatest stories ever told, not just because it’s a miracle but because it’s true. And it happened here on this earth with real people just like you and me.
The Christmas story is a story of God’s love for us, but it’s also a story of humanity. If is wasn’t, God would have no reason to send his son to a stable in Bethlehem to grow up into a man who would die for us. It’s because of our humanity and specifically our sin that this all needed to happen. That’s what makes this time of year significant. Not because of the presents or decorations or music, but because our God came to earth to save us.
What’s truly ironic is, it’s my humanity that keeps me from seeing the joy in this truth. I get distracted and busy. I make it about a holiday instead of adoring my savior. This isn’t just another story. It’s true. Our God came here to save you and me. As Linus would say, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”