When I was a kid, I loved watching magic tricks and trying to figure them out. I was amazed by how simply through distracting my attention—through causing my eyes to look at the less important part of what was going on—I could be kept from understanding what the magician had really done.
In a blog post from a couple of days ago, our old friend Brian Dennert suggested the same thing might be taking place during Christmas time, albeit unintentionally. When we consider the story of Jesus’ birth, most of us have etched in our minds the typical creche scene that we see repeatedly in December: calm and stately mother and father in a stable surrounded by presentable shepherds and three exotic wisemen, with a quiet, serene, and often white, baby Jesus in a manger in the center.
A problem with this mental image is that (to quote a recent movie) every word of it is wrong. As Brian notes, Jesus was likely born in Joseph’s relatives’ home in Bethlehem, in the main room of the house, where animals were kept during winter, and not the stable, and the wise men (however many there were) likely came months later. Shepherds were dirty and smelly; Mary and Joseph likely were exhausted and a bit disheveled; and Jesus (definitely not white) almost certainly would have spent a good portion of that evening demonstrating his healthy lungs (sorry, “Away in a Manger”—crying he did make!)
When we focus our gaze on these romanticized details about which Scripture is largely silent, we turn our attention from what God’s Word intends us to see. We become distracted and miss what is really going on.
We miss how human this birth is. A young woman in an unfamiliar place goes into labor. A healthy baby struggles to learn how to breastfeed. Extended family celebrate as the exhausted mother and her fiancée savor the moment. The world that Jesus fully entered is not a Thomas Kinkade painting. It’s our world.
At the same time, we can miss the gravity of the moment. An army of terrifying creatures has announced that their king has been born, a revolutionary who will bring down the mighty from their thrones. The mere hint of this news causes Herod to be so threatened that he resorts to infanticide. There is nothing sentimental about this.
Perhaps most importantly, as Brian notes, the creche imagery might turn our gaze from what we most need to remember. God has done what he said he would do. He has come to save his people from their sins and make a way back to Him. And he has done it in a way that no one ever could have imagined. God of God, Light of Light, who for our sake became flesh.