As I type these words, the lights of my Christmas tree twinkle in a predictable pattern. This hand-me-down artificial tree is sitting in that same spot, adorned with those same ornaments, and topped with that same star we bought at an after-Christmas sale a decade ago. The predictability and normalcy of this tree is soothing.
Yet this tree is one of the few normal aspects of my Christmas festivities. Thanks to COVID, our holiday routines have been rudely disrupted — from canceled Christmas parties to altered travel plans. If I were giving 2020 a present, it would be a hefty lump of coal.
You probably feel the same way. This year the “Christmas feels” may fall flat, the holiday nostalgia may feel hollow, and you may feel unsettled and weary. To put it another way, your Christmas (like mine) may feel less like a “Holly Jolly Christmas” and more like a “Blue Christmas.”
To my fellow weary Christmas celebrants, I have good news: We’re in good company. As I’ve reflected on the birth of Christ, I’ve come to realize that the first Christmas wasn’t so Holly Jolly either. It too lacked our “Christmas feels” and holiday nostalgia.
The first Christmas was not normal by any stretch of the imagination.
Too often, our Christmas decorations, routines and busyness obscure the wonder of the Christmas story.
Not a Normal Christmas
The Christmas story did not take place beneath snow-capped mountains and perfectly trimmed Christmas trees. Rather, the story occurs in ancient Israel, far removed from the glory days of David and Solomon. The region was ruled by a vile, paranoid, power-hungry maniac named Herod. There was no superficial holiday cheerfulness to this season.
In the midst of this drab setting, some bizarre events occur. An angel appeared to a young woman named Mary in sleepy Nazareth. The angel told her she would “conceive in [her] womb and bear a son” who would be “called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31, 32). Mary was only betrothed to Joseph, not married. An angel appearing, a virgin conception, a miraculous announcement — these are not normal events.
Later into Mary’s pregnancy, she and Joseph had to venture to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. So Joseph and a very pregnant Mary pack up and travel some 90 miles on foot — without the benefit of automobiles or Dr. Scholl’s inserts. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, “there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). They resorted to staying outside in a stable. Mary and Joseph’s travels were not normal.
Yet it was in this stable, not a clean hospital room or the comfort of her own home, that Mary gave birth to her little boy. Mary endured all of the pain, shame and exposure of giving birth on the cold ground in this strange place, surrounded not by nurses but by livestock. When little Jesus was finally born, they laid him not in a cozy crib, but a feeding trough. Jesus’ birth was not normal.
This baby’s first visitors weren’t his grandma and grandpa, but a group of smelly sheep herders. Some years later, foreign dignitaries arrived with extravagant gifts after having traveled hundreds of miles. Jesus’ visitors were not normal.
To cap it all off, an angel told Joseph that Herod, the most powerful man in the region, wanted to kill their precious son. So, Joseph and Mary hastily packed up and fled town. They traveled with their boy all the way to Egypt, where they lived as refugees until they could safely return. This sounds more like the plot to a thriller, not a Christmas movie — and it certainly wasn’t normal.
Discomfort, fear and instability marked the events leading up to and following the birth of Christ. With an angelic announcement, a virgin conception, a birth in a stable, an unlikely set of visitors and a violent threat, nothing about the Christmas story was normal.
The Christmas story is anything but tame.
Not a Normal Savior
Then again, there was nothing normal about Jesus himself. The child that was born in this crazy, chaotic time wasn’t an ordinary child. He was God in the flesh, the long-awaited Messiah. He waded into the filth and failures of our world so that he could one day redeem us out of it.
How would he bring about this redemption? Through his death. The infant gently laid in a manger would one day be brutally hung to a cross. The child worshiped by pagan wise men would one day be condemned by his kinsmen. The Messiah prophesied by the prophets would one day be killed between two thieves. The baby wasn’t normal; he was born to die.
Yet he did not stay dead. Jesus rose from the grave, ascended to heaven, and now offers forgiveness and hope to all who repent and believe in him. If we were to plot our rescue plan, it wouldn’t have looked this way. But God in his sovereignty engineered this beautiful gospel as the means of our salvation. Jesus is not a normal savior.
The Strangeness of the Season
Too often, our Christmas decorations, routines and busyness obscure the wonder of the Christmas story. Our holiday celebrations are often like my Christmas tree — predictable and patterned. And, if left unchecked, this predictability can make the Christmas story feel mundane, perhaps even tame.
But, as we can see, the Christmas story is anything but tame. Jesus’ birth is full of plot twists and shocking surprises, and it sets the stage for the next steps in God’s extraordinary rescue plan.
So maybe it’s okay that Christmas isn’t normal this year. It certainly wasn’t normal for Mary and Joseph. Perhaps the disruption of our Christmas traditions can shock us out of our predictable patterns and help us feel the wonder of the Christmas season anew.
This year, let the strangeness of Christmas 2020 point you past the noise and clutter that typically characterizes our Christmas celebrations. Let this abnormal season point you to the beauty of our Savior.