The familiar cues that come with Advent season are everywhere—the sounds of Christmas music, the smells of evergreen trees and cinnamon, and the sights of decorations that seem to appear earlier and earlier each year. Such familiarity and nostalgia usually make Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.”
For many, though, this season is a painful reminder of good times that once were. Maybe this year there will be an empty seat at the table, and all we can think of is the deep grief we are about to experience again. This tension of joy and pain may bring more confusion and hurt than we can bear.
Even the Advent story itself comes with its own mystery.
Born of a Virgin
Take the virgin birth. This part of the story comes under intense scrutiny each year by skeptics. Luke records that an angel appeared to a young virgin named Mary and told her she would become pregnant—by the Holy Spirit. Not only that, but also her child would be the Son of God, a king for David’s throne. Certainly she remembered the promise that a virgin would give birth to a son (Isa. 7:14), but it seemed too good to be true.
Can you imagine the confusion, the joy, and the flood of thoughts in her mind? The angel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth was also pregnant. Elizabeth is advanced in years and had been barren all her life. Being infertile in Jesus’s day was considered a curse. Imagine the joy they shared, the young teenage girl and Elizabeth, maybe in her 70s or 80s, both pregnant. When Mary visited her cousin, Elizabeth’s baby (John the Baptist) leapt in her womb at Mary’s greeting. In a mirror image of the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah, God is demonstrating that his ways, though hard for us to understand, are being woven into a bigger story. Though never touched, new life is brought forth. Though barren all her life, God is making the impossible possible.
After staying with Elizabeth for three months, Mary heads back to Nazareth, and people start asking questions. People begin whispering, first behind her back, then in front of her. Her clothes begin to look small on her. But remember, Mary isn’t supposed to be pregnant. She is engaged to Joseph, not married. Imagine this pregnancy’s scandal in a little town like Nazareth. Joseph was going to do the honorable thing and divorce her rather than have her bear charges of infidelity. But in a dream, an angel calms Joseph and assures him Mary is virtuous and this baby is the Spirit’s.
Remember, Joseph is of the house of David, himself a descendent of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. Think of the weightiness of what is happening in this humble carpenter’s life. A child born into his house, but not his child. A child he will soon adopt, a child who is the centerpiece of God’s great adoption plan for the world.
Long, Strange Trip
Then there was the decree from Caesar Augustus to be registered. Joseph’s lineage was impressive, which made it even more important to go and be counted. But what about Mary? She was eight months pregnant. Her midwife was in Nazareth, a solid week away on foot. I’ve always thought this one of the story’s oddest parts. Obstetricians today don’t want their patients to travel long distances late in their pregnancies.
But Mary agrees to take this long trip with no scheduled return date. And sure enough, while they are in this rural town, Mary’s water breaks. They are far from home, in a small crowded town, and there isn’t a room to rent. Joseph asks an innkeeper if there is any place where they can simply be alone. He offers what amounts to a cave behind his inn where the guests’ animals stay.
God Stoops Down
Almighty God, in human flesh as a baby, will make his grand entrance with the sights, sounds, and smells of farm animals looking on. Strange indeed. In God’s curious design, shepherds are given the honor of being the first to learn of this king’s birth and the first to see him. That scene must have been awkward. They were poor shepherds, without proper clothes to meet a king. But isn’t that the point? God comes to us and meets us in the most unlikely places. In the simplicity of our circumstances—in our messes, disappointments, and failures—King Jesus finds us.
A couple years later Herod learns of this king from three wise men/astrologers/scientists. Herod plots to find Jesus too—not to worship him, but to kill him. The wise men receive instructions to take the long way home, avoiding Herod. Joseph and Mary are told to flee their hometown. In one of the worst mass genocides imaginable, Herod orders the murder of all children under age two in attempt to wipe out the challenger to his throne.
There isn’t one normal scene in the Advent story. A teenage virgin is pregnant. Angels at every turn. Mass infanticide. To our unbelieving friends, it may sound more like a deranged playwright’s midnight tragedy than the Word of God. But what do we do with these oddities? How do we address them?
Historically, there is an “embarrassment of riches” as to the reliability of these events.
Emotionally, we long to connect with the season. We love Christmas, don’t we? But it has to be more than trees and gifts and food.
Perhaps this year there was hope of new life, but instead of cries and giggles all you hear is the persistent, deafening silence of infertility.
Maybe this year your Christmas table will look different because of the loss of a loved one. If Christmas is just about external trappings, what happens when those are gone? Perhaps your own story is as mysterious as the ones you’ve read over and over and wonder how the author will weave them into a happy ending.
In all of these stories—ancient or modern, curious or painful—there is a common thread. And mysterious though it may be, the mystery of Advent is crystal clear to those of us who believe. It is a theme that ran through the Old Testament from the day Adam and Eve were driven from the garden. Who is the rescuer? Who is the Messiah? Who is this Christ?
The mystery, the tension, and the intrigue of Advent is wrapped up in the manger, in Emmanuel, God with us. Not God near us. Not God close by. But God with us. He came to earth as a baby, helpless and small, but with all of the omnipotence of God. Crying for food and milk, he is the bread of life. He needed to be taught how to string a fishing line, but is the fisher of men. A boy who caught colds, skinned his knee, maybe even twisted his ankle on the playground, but is himself the great physician. A boy who grew up with real fears, real temptations, and real desires, yet is the desire of nations, wanting nothing but the will of his Father who sent him.
This boy king is the mystery revealed. He is the point of Christmas. There is no resurrection morning joy without Good Friday pain. And there is no Good Friday pain without the manger. But this manger—a livestock feeding trough—cradled the Lamb of God. And just as Jesus came into the world behind a full inn, lying in a borrowed cave, he would one day hang on a cross for sin and be buried in a borrowed grave.
That’s why we celebrate Christmas. The mystery that, though our sins are like scarlet, the spotless Lamb of God is with us. He is for us. He will make our sins as white as snow. I pray that you will search out this king anew, because in reality, he has already found you.
Come, behold the wondrous mystery.