Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2.4-7)
How easily our romance with the Nativity slips into sentimentality! We start with two young people inadequately prepared for the task God assigns them, making bold decisions based on visions and dreams. Other than Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband, Zachariah—who empathize with her, as they’re also dealing with a miraculous conception—the Gospels mention no family or community support. Even if loved ones support them, they’re nowhere to be found when Mary and Joseph need them most. God’s plan draws them away from home and strands them in an overcrowded village, where no one cares about them. They do their best with what they’ve got, which is next to nothing. Against all odds, they bring a healthy Child into the world. As they cope with what must seem like an insurmountable crisis, our focus is diverted to simultaneous events. Beyond Bethlehem’s walls, angels sing glad tidings to shepherds. In Jerusalem, prominent foreigners consult King Herod about Christ’s birth, first brought to their attention by an astronomical anomaly. The terrified new parents see none of this.
When the odd assortment of strangers converges on the lowly stable, our movie-fed reflexes kick in. We push the tiny barn from its secluded back lot, anchor it on a sleepy street, and tidy things up to make it presentable. We tamp down the dirt floor, shovel out the manure, rid the feed cribs of rats, and de-louse the livestock. Before the guests arrive, we make sure to discard bloody evidence of childbirth, bathe mother and Child, substitute a downy white comforter for torn rags binding the Infant’s movement, put both parents in fresh clothes, and iron out the exhaustion, stress, and panic creasing their faces. Presto! The mean reality of Christ’s birth is neatly revised for distinctly Western, middle-class, marketable allure, readily amenable to Christmas cards, kiddie pageants, and easily offended children of all ages.
Had it been possible to photograph the scene, we’d be so shaken by what it revealed that waves of horror and nausea would crush us. We’d have to ask, “What is God thinking?” It’s not enough for Jesus to be born when the most ideal birth scenarios are ghastly primitive. No, God works overtime to see Mary delivers the Child in conditions that the poorest, most disadvantaged mothers of her day would find appallingly substandard. We cringe to question God’s judgment, but outrage forces us to ask again, “What is God thinking?” It’s a question that God must welcome, though, given what its answer reveals.
By necessity, Jesus must live a lowly life. To make clear the God in Him stoops to reach us, our atonement can never be dismissed as a noble act of human kindness. We get all of that. Still, was it really necessary to subject Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to such horrible extremes? Surely there’s a better way to do this. After all, we’re talking about God here—our God of endless options, infinite wisdom, and incomparable power. If this was God’s Plan A, there had to be at least one Plan A+ that didn’t strip the Child and His parents of all dignity and pride. We can go down that road over and over—adjusting the math, tinkering with variables, inventing comparable confluences of theology, history, and science. Yet every time we’ll land at the same conclusion: there is no better way. For Jesus’s death to set new standards for love, tolerance, and mercy, His birth must be scarred by indifference, isolation, and disgrace. The intricately detailed symmetry is simply divine.
Compassion That Rocks the World
The Nativity and Crucifixion are two halves of a whole, both brutally demeaning, yet brilliantly decisive. Together they prove God brooks no middle ground to repair our broken relationship. It’s an all-or-nothing covenant founded on God’s desire to restore all we’ve lost, even though nothing we do warrants divine favor. In Philippians 2, Paul writes, “Christ Jesus, Who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (v4-8) Christ’s sacrifice begins in Bethlehem, where Jesus opens His eyes to a birthplace unfit for a slave, and culminates at Calvary, where He shuts them on a lowlife’s cross. From the start, Christ renounces divine stature to attain our deepest despair.
Before placing Christmas’s cruelty on par with Good Friday’s atrocities, let’s consider the physics of God’s plan. Every human weakness God abhors springs from our unholy craving to come out on top. It pollutes us and our filth cascades on those we presume beneath us. Sin’s gravity (in every sense) is why there’s no better way—why there can be no middle ground. It’s why Paul says Christ “emptied Himself.” Since that’s the lowest one can possibly go, to claim superiority of any kind is to exalt oneself above Christ.
Bethlehem is where Christ unleashes a tide of compassion that rocks the world off its axis. High-low status gives way to a tableland where all stand equally, side-by-side. It’s as Isaiah 40 says: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (v4-5) The Nativity’s unspeakable sorrow spawns indescribable joy when we see how low Christ goes to free us of inequities, rejection, and despair. Christmas is the defining moment when the Word Made Flesh stands at the foot of sin’s corrosive cascade and swallows it up with God’s free-flowing love, acceptance, and grace. (Cue the angels: it's time to sing!)
Prepare our hearts and grant us courage, O Christ, to arrive at Bethlehem with clear eyes. May your glory be revealed in the splendor of what transpires in the filthy stable, instead of the sentimental, sanitized spectacle we’ve been sold. May the extreme lowliness we witness cure our unholy drive to be on top and heal the wounds inflicted on us by sin’s corrosive cascade. Amen.
Sentimentalizing the Nativity sanitizes its actuality—hindering our realization of how low Christ had to go to put an end to sin’s inequities and despair.