Nativity scenes are great for reminding us of all of the parts of the Christmas story: the angel, the wise men, the shepherds, and of course, the baby born among animals and laid in a feeding trough. But they are also misleading. That tidy scene that we all know so well never happened.
Many of us know this part: the wise men, the star-gazers, the astrologers who came from afar wouldn’t arrive to visit the baby Jesus until he was a toddler. It would have taken them over a year to travel to the holy family. They were never actually at the manger.
There is a much more dramatic difference though: There was no angel at the manger. The angel showed up when Jesus was born, but not at the manger with Mary and Joseph. The angel showed up with the shepherds, way out in the fields.
The moment that we celebrate on Christmas morning was not the party overseen by the angel Gabriel that we see in our nativity scenes. Instead there were two very different scenes happening. God was present in each one, but that presence looked very different.
Out in the fields, the presence of God was unmistakable. The dark night lit up like the day with the glory of God, an angel made a thundering pronouncement, and then a whole choir of angels burst in praising God in song.
At the manger, however, it was lonely, probably scary, definitely painful. It was bloody and raw. Joseph, Mary, maybe a midwife or some women from town to help with the birth, and a new baby. But no fanfare. No immediate confirmation that this child was the Son of God. Mary had only her memory of what had been proclaimed to her nine long months before. I wonder how sharp that image was for her?
For the shepherds, God’s presence is clear and powerful and there’s no doubting it. God interrupted their lives in the dramatic way that we so often long for, but they do not respond to it as we might imagine. They do not bask in it, finally satisfied. Instead, they are terrified. That is almost universally what happens in scripture when God steps in in this way. That’s why God and the angels are constantly reassuring people not to be afraid. It’s one of the reasons that “Do not be afraid” is the most repeated phrase in the bible. People are always falling on their faces and crying out for mercy, going blind, and even dying when God shows up like this. The Bible says that no one could see God’s fullness and live. We can’t handle it.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that if we haven’t seen God in this way then we haven’t seen God at all. But I think the shepherds needed the fireworks because otherwise they might never have noticed the real sign they were being given: the baby lying in a manger. Without the blaze of glory they would not have known that the right response to that down-and-out little boy was worship.
The difference between the two scenes is striking. For the shepherds, angels are singing, glory is shining, good news for the whole world is being announced. But for Mary and Joseph, one of the most ordinary things in the world is happening. We’re all amazed by the birth of a new little human, but it is also the way that every single one of the billions of people in the world has come to be here. Who knows how many other babies were born that night?
If we didn’t know better, we might not think that God showed up with Mary and Joseph at all. God didn’t show up enough to cancel the census so that they could have the babe at home. God didn’t show up enough to get them a room in the inn. It’s not even clean. It’s a stable, with animals and animal hair and animal mess. If I had had to give birth to any of my kids in those kinds of conditions, I would have been screaming at God for having abandoned me in my deepest need.
And yet, it is in the manger, not in the fields, that God is doing the greatest miracle that has ever, ever been done. In that manger where it seems like God must be absent, God is more present to humanity than any time since Eden. In that dark and dirty place, God is being born as a human infant. The creator of the world is surrendering to vulnerability in it.
God comes to us through the womb of a willing teenager so that God’s love can be made visible in the person of Jesus, so that God, whose unfiltered glory could kill us, could be seen in a way that we could understand, touch, feel, know. This is the greatest miracle that has ever been, and for the most part, in the moment it happens, it looks like abandonment. It looks like loneliness and filth. It looks like pain.
It seems to me that it is far more frequent that God shows up in this way: not with the clash of cymbals and a light from heaven, but in the commonplace, the everyday, in dogged, confusing faithfulness. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, Jesus said. It looks so small, but just imagine what it will become.
Christmas always comes in the midst of our own pain and struggle. All the lights and songs seem oblivious to the ache of a lost love, to political turmoil, to a planet on fire. But no matter what is happening for you this Christmas: Do not be afraid.
The Good News of Christmas is this: God has come near. Your God comes to you. Whether it is in the bright light of angels, or in the deep darkness of night. In the fire of glory or the cries of a child. God brings good news of great joy for all people.
Do not be afraid.