If your unwed daughter comes to you with news that she is pregnant, what are your thoughts? Is it a happy moment or does the world fall apart? If she tells you, “No really! I’m a virgin and this child is the Son of God,” can you possibly believe her? Of course not. It doesn’t matter whether you are from America or Madagascar or Israel, whether you have a PhD or don’t know how to read, everyone understands that virgins don’t have babies. You do not say to your daughter, “You sure had me worried for a second, but now that you have told me it was the Holy Spirit and an angel, Congratulations!” No, like any sane person you must acknowledge the fact that your daughter is not only promiscuous, but a liar.
We think of Christmas as a time when we gather with family and celebrate lovingly together, but if you happen to be in a family that experiences more tension on Christmas than love and cheer, you probably fall more in line with Mary and Joseph. Where in the world are their families during the Christmas narrative? When you have a baby, especially in a much more family-focused culture like Israel, everyone is supposed to celebrate. It should have been like it was for Mary’s relative Elizabeth. When Elizabeth had a son, “…her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” (Luke 1:58) Everyone gathered to celebrate when the baby John the Baptist was born and when he was named.
It would appear that Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, have been left alone. Ask someone from a different culture where families are central, Madagascar for example, and they will tell you that Mary and Joseph have lost their family’s support. The fact that there was no room for them in the inn is not what makes the story tragic. The fact that they were having to look for a room in the inn is the tragedy. When a relative is looking for a place to stay, even a distant relative, you do not send them to the inn (except in America). Mary and Joseph were not the only family members who had to go to Bethlehem; it was where Joseph’s family was from. Was there no relative, no friend who could take them in? No, because virgins don’t have babies, and Jesus’s birth was not one people wanted to be a part of.
We Christians celebrate some of the most embarrassing things. We commemorate the day when our namesake died as a criminal for being a blasphemous and rebellious lunatic, and this time of year we celebrate how his mother and father had the shameful experience of giving birth to their bastard son apart from home and family and friends and pretty much everything except barn animals.
Now personally, I love Christmas and I believe it’s glorious. But there is only one thing that makes Christmas glorious and that is God. Christmas is not cute apart from God, just like the cross is not sweet and nice if there is no resurrection. With God, yes rejoice and believe because the Holy Spirit has come upon the virgin Mary, and the Son of God, the Savior of the world, is here! Without him, just turn away in disgust and pity. That’s what most people did when they heard about Mary and Joseph.
Why would God choose to work and make himself known in such disgraceful ways? Why not choose something more obviously honorable? Why a scorned virgin birth and why a cross? Perhaps it is because God cares so much for the lowly. He wanted to make it known that there is no situation so horrible that he cannot work for redemption and glory. There is no shame so great that God would hide his face from us, though all other people might. There is no family angst that he cannot meet us in. Christ comes into the world when things are at their lowest and most painful.
We wish for a merry Christmas, but God knows that many people experience a Christmas and a situation as un-merry as the first Christmas. And God says, even then I can break through and bring hope to the hopeless. Believe, and you will find that in the worst situations and in the strangest ways, Christ comes to meet you.