Christmas is a time that truly reveals our humanity. As Christians we celebrate the revelation of the Incarnation, which does not refer solely to God becoming a man, but also recognizes that Jesus really enters into our humanity—with all its beauty, ordinariness, occasional chaos, and stress.
We often gaze upon picturesque nativity scenes with Mary and Joseph perfectly placed around the peaceful baby Jesus. A soft light illumines the resting animals and adoring shepherds while angels sing lullabies nearby. Indeed there is something right about this placid image – the birth of Christ is a moment to worship and rest with God. But was the first Christmas really restful?
We sing songs like “Silent Night” although any mother or father knows that the first nights and even weeks with a newborn are anything but silent and restful. They are exhausting! While parenting is incredibly rewarding, family life is also tiresome and stressful. We have good reasons to believe the same was true for the Holy Family, especially during the early days of the nativity.
Some scholars say Mary was only a fourteen year-old girl and Joseph, her husband, may have been as young as nineteen. When it was time for Mary to give birth, they were far from home and family, with no place to rest for the night, except a stable full of smelly, noisy animals. The newborn Jesus was wrapped in plain cloth and laid in a manger—a feeding trough—to sleep in. As if this wasn’t challenging enough there was also the looming threat of King Herod trying to find and kill their Messianic child.
Even with the grace of faith, the world’s first Christmas must have been incredibly stressful and exhausting for this young Holy Family. By comparison, I much prefer my own experience of having a doctor, medical staff, and clean hospital room prepared to care for my wife when she is in labor, along with family waiting nearby to welcome our child.
Recognizing the difficulties that the Holy Family faced, it almost seems appropriate that Christmas tends to be a challenging time of year for many families. We partially cause this stress ourselves because we set high expectations, always desiring Christmas to be so picture perfect—like that beautiful nativity scene we display.
So, we put great effort into making plans with our families, cooking the tastiest meals, purchasing the perfect gifts, hanging decorations, and keeping a smile, while still handling all of the other responsibilities that come with family life. And let’s be honest, getting all of our family members together carries a certain level of tension even when we love each other and truly enjoy each other’s company.
Too often people get down on themselves because not everything went as planned during Christmas. Maybe the turkey was burnt, a gift was not purchased, or an alcoholic family member had too much to drink and was embarrassing. Christmas felt like it was a disaster because it did not meet their idealistic, snowy white Christmas expectations. So they believe they missed out on the Christmas spirit…again.
The good news is that Christmas is not about having the perfect holiday experience. The Gospel of Matthew informs us, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt. 2:22-23).
The great significance of Christmas is that God wants to be with us even when that means being with us in our weaknesses, limitations, and family stress. Despite all the difficulties, if we can still come together in love to celebrate the birth of Christ, then we are living the real Christmas.
Not too long ago I spent Christmas in a hospital at the side of my grandfather while he was dying. The next year I was in the hospital again on Christmas waiting and hoping for a loved one to come out of a coma after she attempted suicide. The following year my wife’s family experienced all kinds of suffering throughout the Christmas season.
These are part of my Christmas story in recent years, and in some sense they are similar to Mary and Joseph’s first Christmas because they involved a great deal of stress, restless nights, and uncertainty about the future. But most importantly, in each of these Christmas stories our families still came together with all of our suffering and imperfections; we still came together to pray and celebrate the birth of Jesus just like Mary and Joseph.
Every Christmas we are all invited to remember that Christ comes to each of us again, desiring to be present in the midst of our humanity. We can live the Christmas season well when we keep our eyes fixed on the infant Jesus, inviting God into our humanity.
Will Christmas be a silent night? Probably not. A holy night? Absolutely. This year let us bring our families together—just as they are—and gather around the Christ Child. Then offer a prayer of thanks, for truly “God is with us.”