More than anything I can remember in recent years, a full color ad for Dell computers is an intensely vivid portrayal of what Christmas has become. “Get a free printer, scanner or webcam,” the ad shouts. “Hurry, before the spirit of giving leaves us.” You buy our product before the spirit of giving leaves us!
Christmas used to mean more. The conception of Christmas used to be a teenaged girl, pregnant before marriage, drenched in sweat. She had just pushed her first child into the cold night air of an unheated, smelly barn, and the baby was still covered with afterbirth and blood.
Almost 20 years ago, we were living in another state, and my wife, Bonnie, was teaching in a middle school. One afternoon, late in the school year, she asked a group of seventh graders their plans for high school and beyond. One girl, 13 years old, said the current year would be her last year of formal education.
When Bonnie asked why, the teenager replied, “I'm going to have a baby, and live on welfare like my mother and my grandmother.” In a day when hundreds of thousands of teenagers become pregnant outside of marriage, that middle-schooler's comments scarcely raise an eyebrow.
Two thousand years ago, the discovery of Mary's pregnancy would have been the scandal of the town. Indeed, it would have been enough to have caused Mary's execution to be engaged, and to be found pregnant with another man's child drew the death penalty.
An outcast, a social pariah, Mary went to the one person she thought might understand her embarrassment, her cousin, Elizabeth, who was pregnant under circumstances which were obviously miraculous. But while everyone rejoiced with Elizabeth, they cast long looks of anger and disgust at Mary.
The disparity continued into the births of the two boys: John was born at the parsonage, into the joy of a minister's home; Jesus entered the world far from his parent's home, an outcast with only his mother and his step-father to welcome his birth.
Nine months earlier an angel had shown up, uninvited, and unannounced, in Mary's living room. Gabriel had scared the little Jewish girl half out of her wits. She was so afraid that before Gabriel could give her God's message, he had to calm her young heart which threatened to beat right out of her chest. Then the angel spoke powerful, indeed, overpowering words about God's plan of salvation.
“God is pleased with you, Mary,” the angel said, “and you will become pregnant.”
Mary heard the rest of the message, but it was the “P” word that stuck in her mind.
Debate the Greek, discuss the Hebrew all you wish, but Mary settled the dispute: “How can this happen?” she demanded. “I am a virgin! I have never had sex with a man!”
Then her periods stopped, she got morning sickness, and her stomach started to swell. Somewhere on a dusty Judean road, the birth contractions started. Somewhere in a strange city, with the “No Vacancy” sign hung out all over town, her water broke.
And from somewhere deep inside of him, Joseph summoned one more tremendous act of courage and convinced a beleaguered innkeeper, overwhelmed by the crush of people swarming to town for the census, to at least allow his young wife to have her baby in the barn and not out on a Bethlehem street.
“You will give birth to God's Son,” Gabriel had said.
“Push!” Joseph urged.
“The Messiah. Christ the Lord. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”
That night an angel chorus sang to shepherds, but their notes were drowned out by the screams of a young woman, a little girl, a baby who was having a baby.
The Savior of the world? God's Son?
“Come on, Mary. I can see the head. Just one more push!”
And somewhere in the darkness, Joseph held his son, God's Son, God in human flesh, by the heels and swatted the baby's backside and Jesus communicated with sinful mankind for the first time. The fluid cleared from His lungs and the coda to the angel's chorus was a healthy wail. Then Mary cleaned her bloody son for the first time and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.
Thirty-three years later, another Joseph, Joseph of Aramathea, cleaned off the bloody body of Mary's son, God's Son, God in human flesh for the last time wrapped Him in burial clothes and laid Him in a tomb.
But death could hold Him for only three days because He really was, really is, the Savior who is Christ, the Lord!
He is Christmas. He is the reason for the season. Merry Christmas!
(David Sisler's newspaper column, Not For Sunday Only, is in its 14th year of weekly publication. Not for Sunday only is based on news events, sports, popular songs, motion pictures and personal glimpses. The message is: the Christian faith is an everyday happening – it is not for Sunday only. The columns are thoroughly researched, and never indicate denominational bias. For reprint permission, or to subscribe to Not For Sunday Only, contact Mr. Sisler at firstname.lastname@example.org.)