I looked for an image of the Nativity to accompany a Christmas social media post and all the options displayed on my stock image site were cartoonish, Precious Moments-ish, Willow Tree-esque, unreal. There were no depictions with actual people.
And I wondered – is that the way the general population thinks of the Christmas story? A cartoon? A warm parable to tell along with the legend of Santa and his elves in the North Pole? A fairytale that has no basis in reality or, worse still, no bearing on life today?
At this time of year, the evangelical wordsmiths among us, including me, get busy, trying to think of a new way to describe the first Christmas. We’ve debunked the myth of a silent, perfect night and the error in our nativity sets which have the wisemen showing up at the manger. We’ve discussed how Mary must have felt and what she must have known (good call on that one, Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene). We’ve talked about the oppression of the Jewish people and the hopelessness of their national and spiritual state. We’ve talked about the raw, earthy nature of giving birth in an animal shelter and the oddity of socially unacceptable shepherds visiting the Newborn. We’ve looked at the Bethlehem story from every angle that comes to our curious minds, and yet, every December, we try again. And this year, we’ve seen may parallels with the rare circumstances of 2020 and the topsy-turvy world of the first century. But when you get right down to it, the only thing that can be said is that Christmas defies our best description.
Frankly, I’m tired of thinking of intriguing angles about the Nativity. Do we imagine that no one else ever had a similar thought? In the two thousand plus years since Christ’s birth, how many inquisitive minds have plumbed the deep corners of this mystery? No cliche has likely gone unchallenged.
But Christmas still IS. And it is REALITY. Not a cartoon or cute collection of figurines.
No, you don’t have to dispose of your grandma’s Precious Moments nativity set. These intimate ways of imaging Christmas help us to get a bit closer to a staggering truth; our frail human minds can’t handle the totality of the actual revelation and so we need these kinds of glory “veils.” But you do have to hold, in your own mind, to the sure and certain knowledge that a holy Birth did happen in the tiny city of Bethlehem of Judea. And it happened TO real people FOR real people.
We have to choose to remember that the Incarnation still splits earth’s history and promises us radical hope, uncommon joy and unimagined love. We have to remember that it will always defy our best efforts to understand and express. After all, words are only vehicles to describe truth; words are one of God’s gifts to us. But, in reality, THE WORD transcends all words.
We’ll keep trying to describe the wonder of that holy night, but, when the sentences we’ve written become merely another entry in the log of human history, His entrance into our planet will still take away our breath and remind us that only heaven has the language to describe what happened when God squeezed into baby skin.
Thanks be unto Him for this indescribable Gift.