The night was dark. The times were desperate. An oppressive government was calling for a universal tax and a young teenage girl was well advanced in her “crisis” pregnancy. Under these desperate conditions Joseph and Mary traveled by foot and donkey over 100 miles south to Bethlehem, but found no room at the inn. The only place to lodge and deliver this child was a dark, dank stable, a disheveled pen for animals and beasts of burden.
It is against this most unlikely backdrop that divinity invades poverty. When God came down to earth He came down in the humblest fashion. He came down in the roughest manner. And He came into a place of conflict, certainly not becoming of a king. He traded his kingly robes for rough swaddling clothes. He traded his divine prerogatives for a humble wooden trough and the aromas of royalty for the rough smells of livestock and manure. The Savior of the world was born in a place many parents wouldn't even let their kids play for fear of infection or injury.
What a stark contrast we find in the Christmas story of “mother and child, so tender and mild” at the wooden manger and the mother and son at the wooden cross some 33 years later. “Round yon virgin” and “Sleep in heavenly peace” transition from blinding light to devastating darkness at Golgotha's hill. At the cross the unique calling of Mary and the depth of her heartbreak is unsurpassed. The One she bore now bears the burden of her own sin and that of the whole world as she watched His bloodied body hang limply on the Tree of Death. She who once delivered Him was now being delivered by Him. The fruit of her womb now becomes the First Fruits of all creation. One of my favorite Christmas contemporary songs sums it up this way:
“Mary did you know that your baby boy would someday walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.”
At the cross we watch the first and only death necessary to unite a son and mother under the same Father. How significant that there the God-man hangs as mediator between His Heavenly Father and His earthly mother. Mary’s eldest heir died to make her a ‘joint-heir with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17). Because the Son dies, the mother lives to become a daughter of the Father who sent the Son to be the Savior.
It is at the cross where motherly love can only watch helplessly as Divine Love takes action. The death of her firstborn son gave rise to another son born spiritually out of that same death. At the birth of Jesus, Mary beheld her son. At His death, Jesus said, “Woman behold thy son,” and honored her with the gift of another son in His faithful disciple John to take care of her. Simeon's prophetic words to Mary, “Yea a sword shall pierce thy soul” (Luke2:35), connect the rough wooden trough to the rugged wooden cross.
The meaning of Christmas—the reason He came—was to “Give” that we might live. “For God so loved the world that he “gave…” (John 3:16). We give gifts at Christmas because He GAVE to us the ultimate gift. “Joy to the world the Lord has come, let earth receive her King!” He gave. We receive. Joy abounds. Many of our sacred advent carols connect the wooden trough to the wooden cross, and even the empty tomb.
“Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
'Born to save the sons of Earth,
Born to give them second birth,
Hark the Herald Angels Sing,
Glory to the newborn King!'
On this international holiday we call Christmas, as we sit around the tree aglow with shining ornaments, let us call to mind the ornaments or fruit of two other trees. Many years ago an unknown carpenter shaped a small cattle trough from a tree. Just a few decades later, an unknown Roman soldier shaped a deadly cross from another tree. Jesus of Nazareth occupied both and changed the world forever!
“There shall the Child lie in a stall,
This Child who shall redeem us all,
How great our Joy! Great our joy! Joy, joy, joy!
It's no wonder President Kennedy said of this day, "CHRISTMAS...is the most sacred and hopeful day in our civilization."