A Cradle in Bethlehem

She was in pain—a throb that knocked the air from her lungs. She wanted to sleep, but there was a child to care for now. Her husband had gone to find food, because he feared for his wife’s weakness. She was alone; she was scared.

How long had they traveled? Days? Weeks? It felt like months. And for what? To arrive and have nowhere to stay? To set foot in town and have to sleep beneath the cold, black sky? But no, she thought with disgust, they were not beneath an open sky. They were in the home of livestock. A workhorse stomped behind her, sending a wave of dust and the scent of manure. Nauseous from the pain, she wretched into the dirty, yellow hay, and thought, this was no place for a newborn.

The newborn …

He was so quiet. Mary leaned toward the feed basin where he slept. There were still remnants of the birthing on his forehead and face. Now, there were remnants of animal food, too. She wanted to laugh at this humble beginning for the so-called “Son of the Most High,” but in the heavy silence, she feared the sound of her own voice. She plucked a piece of rotten apple from behind his little head and wondered what they were doing there. Is this what God intended? She wanted to scream! What had she done to deserve all this—traveling for weeks on the back of a broken down horse only to deliver her baby in the middle of a filthy stable?

The baby cooed at the touch of her hand, and her momentary anger abated at the sight of his wrinkled, red face. No matter the circumstances, she had done it. She had given birth to this strange child, and a lamb in the corner bayed its approval.

Behind her came the sound of footsteps. She turned toward the doorway, open wide to the night, expecting to find Joseph with some much-needed sustenance. Instead, there lingered three dark figures; she smelled their filth from where she stood, and terror overtook her. They had come to murder her and her baby, she knew. Only murderers would be awake wandering the streets of Bethlehem at that hour. She hobbled before the child, trying to hide it from their view, just as Joseph, her dear, brave husband, stepped up behind the three harbingers of doom.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” he shouted.

The three men leapt at the sound of his voice, and their heads bowed. A gruff voice responded, “Sir, we are but shepherds who have seen a vision.”

“A vision?” Joseph stepped around them, between the three men and his wife, holding a loaf of bread and two fish in his arms.

“Yes.” The shepherds stepped forward into the light cast by a small fire at the entrance to the stable. Mary was shocked to see they were hardly men; they were mere boys. The shepherd continued, “An angel appeared to us in the fields and spoke of a Messiah in Bethlehem. We have come to see for ourselves.”

A Messiah.

Suddenly, Mary’s pain was gone. Her anger at the stable dwindled to a pleasant glow. After all, animals weren’t that bad. And the hay smelled sweet, didn’t it? And her child was beautiful, even covered in dirt. And Joseph had found them food. And it was all true, wasn’t it? These shepherds proved it. Mary had not imagined the angel Gabriel. It was real—it was all real. A virgin had given birth to a child, and that child would save his people from sin and death.

Mary leaned over and scooped the child into her arms. Wrapped tightly in fabric, he could not stretch his arms or legs, but he turned his head slightly and let out a tiny cry. The sound of his voice brought tears to her eyes as she invited the shepherds inside and said, “His name is Jesus.”

Where is Christmas?

The other day, while wrapping Christmas presents, I realized … it’s almost Christmas. You would think this conclusion would have been obvious, but it snuck up on me. I have spent the majority of December preparing for Christmas but not in the spirit of Christmas. Why is this the case?

I could blame the warm climate. Eighty degree temps and palm trees do not make me feel all Christmas-like. But I’ve lived in a warm climate before. True, it snowed in Charleston last year (for the first time in ten years), but still, there were palm trees in South Carolina, too. People didn’t wear winter coats there, just like people don’t wear winter coats here.

I could blame my age. Maybe I’m growing out of Christmas. Maybe I’m too old for this kid stuff. But that’s a lie. I decorated my house the first week of December. I’ve been listening to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole for weeks. I get giddy when Elf is on TV, and I can’t wait to get back to Ohio to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooged, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I’m as much of an immature kid as I’ve ever been, so what gives?

Sitting here, looking at my schedule for the next two days, I think I get it. I have marketing copy to write, books to proof, articles to write, errands to run. Don’t forget, I have to go to the gym. Then, there’s dinner to be made. Maybe I should start packing. On and on and on … blah blah blah … I’m not in the Christmas spirit, because I’ve been too busy. And ain’t that a crock?

Let’s slow down for a second. Do you even remember what Christmas is about? If you say Santa, I’ll smack you, because Santa is NOT what Christmas is about. Remember …

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” (Luke 2: 8–14)

Oh. THAT. Yeah, I remember that kid. He was born in a barn, right? His mom was a virgin, right? Right, right. Yeah, I remember.

Do you? Do you really? Because that kid in a manger is pretty important. They named him Jesus, and well, He died for your sins. He saved the world. He existed so that your sorry, busy self could get into Heaven, but we always forget about Him in the hustle and bustle of Christmas. We forget about Him until Christmas Eve, when we do the church thing, but then, we just want presents.

I’m not pointing fingers. This year, I’ve been as guilty as anyone else. I have been rushed. I’ve been completely stressed out. I’ve been snippy with the man I love. I’ve been snippy with my family, who just want my Christmas list. I have allowed the holiday stress to replace the holiday spirit. And it is time to put an end to it.

This is the first year in my entire life when I have really loved my job. It’s the first year when I have been obsessively writing a novel. It is the first year I’ve lived with my significant other—who is the best man on earth. It is also the first year I have allowed myself to get so enmeshed in all these good things that I have overlooked the one great thing, Jesus Christ, and His birthday.

In the words of Bill Crowder’s Windows on Christmas: “In the midst of all ‘the stuff’ that surrounds our celebration of Christmas, it is far too easy to forget that the first Christmas happened because our sin demanded payment—and only Christ Himself could make a payment sufficient to cancel our debt. While it may be fun to celebrate the holiday with gifts and ornaments and candles and parties, ‘the holy day’ of Christmas is really about rescue and redemption. May we be willing to make part of our celebration of the birth of Christ a commitment to tell our world, for the world needs to know that:
Living, He loved me;
Dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely, forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

I want everyone out there to have a merry Christmas. I want all of us to remember the reason for the season. And I want to say, “See ya next year.” I guess that’s what this post has been trying to say from the beginning. I’ve been too busy. My heart isn’t ready for Christmas, and it needs to be—so I’m disappearing for two weeks. Don’t cry; I’ll be back in January. Until then, have a blessed holiday. Thank God every day, because He loves you, has a purpose for you, and—most importantly—sent His son to die for you. Amen.