Most of us like Christmas cards. They're pretty and usually say nice things. Most of the more "secular" ones show beautiful and sentimental winter scenes or other holiday-themed images such as Santa Claus, snowmen, and reindeer. Then there's also holly, Christmas trees, and activities like shopping, caroling, and partying. You may even see an elf here or there.
The ones that are more "Christian" or religious in their content usually relate more directly to the Christmas story with a depiction of the Nativity, the Star of Bethlehem, etc.
I have a card sitting on my desk that is an left over from some that I used. That's a picture of it – there on the left. Its a pretty card with a nice inscription that accurately points out that when the King of the Universe chose to come and be with us as a man, his arrival was less than spectacular and his birthplace less than grand.
Now take a look at the little picture at the top. It looks like a cozy little shelter where everyone is warm and dry (and well-dressed, I might add.) The animals are looking on in admiration and awe, and there are plants and flowers growing in the front. There also seems to be a good bit of light, but I'm not sure where it's coming from. Its all very nice, isn't it?
Well, here's a suggestion: Based on what you know about the real story and using your imagination a little, imagine what a Christmas card might look like if it accurately captured the scene as you think the scene might have actually looked like there in Bethlehem, in the manger, when Jesus was born. Got a picture? Now look at the card. How much similarity do you see?
Please understand I'm not trying to be down on Christmas cards. I like them and I like this card. But I don't think this particular image is very consistent with what was really going on there.
I think things were probably a little crazy. To begin with, in contrast to what the cards would have us believe, Christmas did not sentimentally simplify life on planet earth. Some Christmas art depicts Jesus' family as icons stamped in gold foil, with a calm Mary receiving the tidings of the Annunciation as a kind of benediction. But that is not at all how Luke tells the story. Mary was "greatly troubled" and "afraid" at the angel's appearance, and when the angel pronounced the sublime words about the Son of the Most High whose kingdom will never end, Mary had something far more mundane on her mind: But I'm a virgin! Nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal. It seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance.
His coming also caused quite a stir in the government. King Herod was the great villain in the Christmas story, a wicked king who saw the baby Jesus as a threat and wanted to murder him. So, after he was born, Mary and Joseph had to take Jesus and run for their lives like common criminals.
Most nativity scenes that you see are peaceful and serene. I think it was probably noisy, crowded, and none too pleasant. Moreover, the manger was most likely a cave, which would have been dirty and smelly and dark. There may or may not have been animals around (the Bible doesn't actually say). Again, it was no Christmas card!
Then there was the birth itself. Of course there were no modern hospitals, but a clean room in the nearest hotel would have been nice. We can only imagine how difficult (and dangerous) it must have been for Mary to deliver in that cave.
It was into this scene – dirty, messy, noisy, and dangerous – that God the Father sent his beloved Son. It certainly wasn't what the Jews of that day were expecting for the coming Messiah.
Yet, his coming was glorious just the same. Why? Simply because of what it was: The eternal Word, the Son, come in the form of a man. Hebrews 1:3 says, "…He [Christ] is the radiance ['effulgence' in KJV] of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and upholds the universe by the word of his power…" (ESV); "…the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being…"(NIV); "…and He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature…" (NASB)
So, in midst of this worldly mess, we find the newborn Christ who the apostle Paul calls "the brightness of His [God's] glory". The Bible usually expresses God's glory in terms of a blinding, dazzling light. Yet the apostle here asserts that the very brilliance of divine glory is found in the second person of the trinity lying in the straw in a dirty, dark, and dangerous cave. Amazing!!
In 2 Cor. 4:6, the apostle Paul writes, "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of Christ in the face of Jesus Christ." (ESV)
On a dark night in Bethlehem, into the darkness of a cave,into a dark society, came Jesus who would be a great light – a light that would shine into the darkness in the hearts of all those who would believe. This is the message of Christmas and the true significance of what happened in Bethlehem two millennium ago.
Merry Christmas indeed!