In the holiday mayhem that happens at this time of year, it is so easy to lose our focus. This is especially true if we are mothers. There is a sort of unwritten expectation that we need to make Christmas and the Christmas season lovely and magical and unforgettable. We want to feel cozy and connected and full of love and peace and hope and joy. It's what we sing about; it's what we watch in movies; it surrounds us for the entire month of December. Is it any wonder that this season is difficult for so many people?
Yet, when we stop to really think about it, feelings of discontent, anxiety, and even fear put us right in the center of the Christmas story. We forget that at the time of Jesus' birth, it was life as usual for everyone in first century Palestine. And that usual involved living in a conquered country that was part of the Roman empire. Herod, having played his political games well, was named King of the Jews by Augustus, the current Caesar of the empire. He was culturally Jewish, so vaguely acceptable to the population of Judea, but his real loyalty lay with Rome. While the region did experience the Pax Romana under his reign, there were also problems. He spent lavishly, both on buildings and on entertainment. To finance these, he taxed the population heavily. That registration that required Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem was a census, undoubtedly for taxing purposes. Plus, any opposition to Herod or to Rome was quickly put down. Just a few years before Jesus' birth, a group of zealots destroyed an eagle that Herod had placed at the temple. In response, Herod had them burnt alive as punishment. Where exactly is the joy in any of that?
Mary is told the unbelievable news that she will bear a son, though she knows better than anyone that in human terms, this is impossible. Gabriel explains it to her and she accepts God's will. We like to leave the story right there. It makes it seem as though saying yes to God is the end of the story. We like to jump to the happy ending. What we don't see, I'm sure, is the social cost that Mary paid as a result of saying yes. We don't see the stares, the whispers, the veiled remarks. We don't see the conversation between Mary and her parents, between Mary and Joseph. And what about Joseph? He was by all accounts a good man. Being thus, he was trying to do the right thing by Mary, even though he must have been crushed at the news she was pregnant. He knew he wasn't the father. How could she have betrayed him? Then he, too, receives a visit from Gabriel, and he, too, says yes. He paid a social cost as well. Either everyone would believe that he was the father or they would believe that someone else was and Joseph was just accepting it. Neither scenario made him look too great. They both said yes, but that didn't mean life was easy as a result. Where is the peace here?
The night of Jesus' birth, for a brief moment, Heaven and earth meet. Joy is here. The redemption for sin and the evil in the world has arrived. There were multitudes of angels, there was worship, there was joy. Mary and Joseph must have wondered at it all, and in the days to come wonder if it had been real, or some dream they shared from too much travel, too much stress, and too much emotion with the birth of their first child. Because, though everything had changed, it most likely felt as if nothing had changed. It was still the same world, the same ruler, the same family, the same problems, except now there was this baby to be worried about as well. This baby didn't look like the long promised Messiah.
And it continued, the Divine reaching out, sharing, being part of the mess of humanity. Being with Jesus did not stop His followers from being human. They were still confused, scared, angry, and clueless. Jesus would remind them again and again, that their fear, their worry, their anger weren't necessary. He was in charge, if they could only allow themselves to believe it. The disciples, when in a boat during a storm, were terrified, even though the Creator of the universe slept next to them. Mary ran to Jesus, angry and sobbing, that He did not come sooner and thus save her brother Lazarus from dying. Peter was so fearful after Jesus was crucified that he denied having known Him, not once, but three times. Each time, those who knew Jesus during His time on earth, were so overcome with the world that they lost hope.
Because here is the real Christmas message to all of us. Sin is costly and evil is alive and well in the world. We see evidence of this every single day of our lives, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small. But it is all the result of sin; of having turned away from God and put ourselves at the apex of importance. To redeem this sin is costly. So costly that God had to come to us to work out His plan to save us, if we will let Him. And God's plan never quite looks like what we would expect, or even want. It often feels backwards and ineffectual, when in actuality, when we look back, it was the only way things could ever come out right. It is a mercy that can be difficult to understand.
If we have hope, then we can find the joy in the moment. If we have hope, then we can rest in the peace that Jesus has it all under control. Because Jesus was born doesn't mean that suddenly our lives will become peaceful and problem free, we are still living in this old sinful world and the story isn't done yet. But because Jesus was born, we have hope that things are being made better, though often in a backwards, unexpected, and sometimes terribly slow (to us) way. God chose to enter into our mess. It was the only way He could reach us. To redeem us. To save us. Our hope comes from knowing that God loves us that much.
This is Christmas. Unimaginable love in the midst of unimaginable mess.
Hallelujah! Christ is born!