BY REV. CLINT LOVEALL - FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, SPIRIT LAKE
My mother collects nativity sets and has one of about every kind you can imagine. However, for all their differences of materials or appearances, they all have a lot in common. There are three wise men (though the Bible doesn’t give a number and suggests they weren’t at the manger). There are shepherds, often three to match the wise men. There are a variety of farm animals, all wandering contentedly around the barn. There is Joseph, calm and relaxed – like every new father – and sweet Mary by his side, thin and happy, beaming with the glow of a new mother. No woman has ever looked better after giving birth. In the center of it all is the babe, the newborn King Jesus, usually a little on the heavy side and smiling like an angel. His hair, often blond, is full and appears to be combed and he is lying completely at peace on a soft bed of bundled straw. Ahhhh.
I would like to see a nativity set like it might have really been that night in Bethlehem – Joseph is pacing and looking sick. He can’t believe his child, who by the way happens to be the Son of God, has been born in a barn. Mary, hair matted in the sweat of “natural childbirth,” is exhausted and hurting. No one she planned on helping her is there, just farm animals, and she can’t figure out how you teach a baby to nurse. Joseph and Mary are both wondering what shepherds are doing there, when they last bathed, and if it would be rude to ask them not to touch the baby. And the king … he is slick and skinny, his head a little out of shape with a small mop of black hair. He’s hungry and crying and straw makes a terrible baby bed. The angels sang “Peace on Earth,” but I doubt there was much of it in the stable that night.
I’ve never seen that nativity set, and probably won’t. We like the peaceful version better. We love the idea that Christmas means everything goes right and works out the way we want. We love the picture of a silent, holy night and we want all of our Christmases to be like that. But many aren’t like that at all. They’re messy.
A son or daughter is in Iraq, a family member has passed away leaving an empty spot at the table and in the heart, people are battling dark feelings and depression that the holidays bring for some, families hoping that all the strained relationships won’t explode right there at the dinner table … or for any one of a hundred other reasons life seems hard and nearly out of control.
If the first Christmas tells us anything, it’s that God didn’t hide Jesus from the messiness of life. He dropped him right into the middle of it. The manger stands as a living witness to the fact that God is in the mess with us. The savior wasn’t off being pampered in some temple or palace, he was in a barn being greeted by shepherds while his young mom and confused dad tried to make sense of what God could possibly be up to. It wasn’t serene, but it was good, and it was God that created peace, not the circumstances.
I hope you and yours have a nativity set Christmas this year. I hope all of the people are in the right places, the star is shining bright, the music of the season is warming your hearts and all is well. But if not, take heart. Yours is not the first messy Christmas. In fact, Christmas is about facing the mess, but not facing it alone. That first Christmas was about as messy as it could have been, but it changed the world, and it changed the people who experienced it. It still does.
Whatever your Christmas looks like this year, take one lesson from the nativity. Put Jesus in the middle. Let him be the center and you will find hope amidst whatever else you face. May the peace of Christ find you this season and may your Christmas be merry – even if it’s messy.