The ‘Real’ Christmas Story—Stained…but Good by Alan B. Ward

I have been reading a book called Christmas is Not Your Birthday recently. One of the points that author Mike Slaughter makes is that we try so hard to sanitize Christmas. Every year, we engage in a futile quest to clean up and create the perfect Christmas. As I was...

I have been reading a book called Christmas is Not Your Birthday recently. One of the points that author Mike Slaughter makes is that we try so hard to sanitize Christmas. Every year, we engage in a futile quest to clean up and create the perfect Christmas.

As I was reflecting on this idea recently, I thought of the line below from a 1973 episode of Sanford and Son. It’s an exchange between “entrepreneur” (a.k.a., junk dealer) Fred Sanford (played by Redd Foxx), and his bible-thumping, purse-slinging sister-in-law, Esther Anderson (played by Lawanda Page) that takes place when she comes to bail Fred out of jail.1

Esther: Fred Sanford, I’m glad my sister didn’t live to see the stain you’ve bought on this family.

Fred: Esther, I didn’t put no stain on your family. Your family was stained when I met y’all… Every time a baby was born, they had that ugly stain on them. That’s right! That ugly stain! Even AJAX couldn’t do nothing for it.

It struck me that Fred’s sentiment, while somewhat irreverent, could be describing our annual preparations for Christmas. This time of year we get out our “AJAX” (whether literal or figurative) and “scrub and scrub” and try to get everything looking pristine and perfect for Christmas. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t attain the perfection we seek. By the end of the season we are exhausted in every way and we may very well have missed the whole point of the Holiday that bears Christ’s name.

As an example of the unattainable and unrealistic images of Christmas we have in our mind, think about the nativity scenes depicted on many Christmas Cards. They have an almost surreal quality to them, don’t they? Have you noticed the snow in some scenes? Did you ever stop and think about what’s wrong with this picture? How often does it snow in the Holy Land? I’d say, rarely, if ever. Yet somehow, we’ve projected the weather in Peoria onto Palestine!

But even if we succeed at suspending our disbelief concerning the weather, many other things seem “out of place” in these pictures. Mary and Joseph are usually positioned directly in the center of the image with the newborn Jesus looking serene and content. Have any of these artists ever actually been parent to a newborn?! The shepherds stand nearby looking remarkably well-dressed for men who have just come in from the fields where they were “tending their flocks by night.” The angel’s luminous presence hovers overhead and no one seems to give them a second thought. (Normally, when angels show up in the Bible, folk’s first response was one of sheer terror.) The three wise men approach the newborn baby in an orderly fashion, each offering their gifts. The presence of strangers intruding into the manger in the middle of the night doesn’t disturb the new parents just a little?! Even the animals seem well-groomed and well-behaved. Would cattle and sheep really lay down?

The nativity scene is a ubiquitous image of Christmas in our culture. It’s the Kodak moment, the perfect photo at the end of every church Christmas pageant with all the characters in the drama neatly arranged around the manger smiling. I enjoy that moment as much as the next person. But while it makes for a perfect photo on Christmas Eve, I would argue that it is only loosely based on reality. The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ actual birth were a whole lot messier and complex—anything but perfect. I think it’s important to keep that fact in mind as we go about our various Christmas traditions.

The fact is, we can “scrub” all we want, but we’ll never get the stains out of the Christmas story—nor, I would argue, should we.

Consider the historical2 context of Jesus’ birth. By the first century AD, the Jewish people have been oppressed for centuries. It’s the only reality that they have ever known. Rome is the latest in a long line of world powers that have marginalized and exploited the Jews. Long have they waited for their Messiah—a great king who God promised would rise up and throw off the yoke of oppression once and for all. But God has been strangely silent for 400 years. After so many years with no fulfillment of the prophecy, many Jews have probably given up hope of things ever being different.

But then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, out on the fringe of the known world, God moves. A young Jewish girl and her fiancé are thrust into the epicenter of God’s story and human history. An angel brings them an incredible message. The young girl—Mary—is chosen for a remarkable privilege and responsibility; she will give birth to the Messiah. Imagine this young couple trying to comprehend this? Imagine all the questions and doubts they had? And yet there could be no denying one fact: Mary was pregnant! A baby was growing in her womb and would soon be born. Somehow, despite so many challenges to overcome, Mary and Joseph respond in faith and obedience and become the earthly parents of Jesus the Christ.

Although we sing: “All is calm; all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child,” on Christmas Eve, I suspect the reality of the night “Christ the Savior was born” was anything but peaceful.

Mary was a teenager about to give birth to her first child after what had to have been a scandalous pregnancy for everyone involved. She and Joseph (who was probably a little older than Mary) have been on what must have seemed like a surreal journey the past nine months, culminating in a literal journey to Bethlehem just prior to Jesus’ birth. The grueling trip late in pregnancy was necessitated by the whim of Caesar Augustus in Rome, who decreed that, “all the world should be counted”. It’s hardly a convenient time for them to travel, but when the Emperor speaks, ordinary people like Mary and Joseph have no choice but to respond. The couple returns to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem. They aren’t alone on their journey and when they arrive the city is crowded, and it’s nearly impossible to find lodging. And so it comes to pass that Jesus is born in a “manger” in Bethlehem.

Historians now think that the manger may not have been a barn as we might think of today, but more like a cave. Maybe Joseph’s family owned it3? In any case, it would have been a place where there was minimal shelter from the elements and a place where animals would have been—and all the things animals bring with them. Think about what animals tend to do in their bedding. You can cover it with a layer of fresh hay, you can “scrub and scrub,” but you will never totally remove those stains—and that says nothing of the smell.

So as we sing about, “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay,” we should keep in mind that it was most likely stained hay that Mary laid her newborn son upon.

Even by first century standards, a manger was far from the ideal place to bring a new baby into the world—much less the Son of God. And yet, when God decides it is time to come and be with us in the flesh, this is precisely where he chooses to make his entrance. God could have chosen anywhere in the world, but God chose a manger.

Likewise the “resumé” for the Mother of God seems a little questionable if not downright scandalous—a Jewish girl from a virtually unknown village, a teenager, an unwed mother, a virgin. God could have chosen any person on the planet, and for some reason God chose Mary. Couldn’t God set up a better scenario than this for the birth of his Son?

What if the whole point God is trying to make in doing it way it happened is that things don’t have to be perfect for them to turn out very good? What if the presence of a few stains in our lives or our dwelling places doesn’t bother God nearly as much as they bother us?

Notice that when God came to Mary, he didn’t say: “Now, Mary, I’m considering choosing you to give birth to my Son, but before I can implant Jesus in your womb, you’ll need to work on the following character flaws… I’ll come back in a year and see if you’re worthy of being the Mother of God”.

No, God sees what Mary is capable of becoming—perhaps precisely because of the adversity and hardship she will have to face and overcome during this pregnancy and beyond. Mary says, “Yes,” to God’s initiative and embarks on a risky journey with God and God uses her to give birth to a miracle. God knows that Mary is not perfect… but God also sees that Mary has a good heart, and this makes her ideally suited to the task of bearing Immanuel.

Mary didn’t have to “scrub and scrub” in some vein pursuit of perfection—really an unattainable state—before God could use her. All she had to do is be open and willing to be part of what God was doing right now.

It’s been said: The perfect is the enemy of the good; I think it’s true. If we get caught up in trying to make something perfect we might very well miss out on something that has the potential to be good. For example, we can become consumed with trying to have a perfect Christmas and fail to appreciate what is so good about the Christmas story.

If we try too hard to scrub Christmas clean, we might end up scrubbing Christ out of the holiday that bears his name.

There is an old hymn called There is a Fountain Filled With Blood whose chorus says: “sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains”. This line of theological thinking maintains Jesus’ blood does what no amount of our own scrubbing can do. Because of what Jesus did on the cross—and only because of that—we are now cleansed of our stains and made perfect before God.

But I’m not sure I believe that exactly. I’ve been a follower of Christ my whole life (41 years) and there are some stains that are just as stubborn as ever! I think perhaps reality is actually closer to Fred Sanford’s “theology”: “You can scrub and scrub but even AJAX won’t get rid of those stains.” That is to say, I think maybe we’re meant to keep some of our stains for eternity. (If that sounds strange, consider that Jesus, after the resurrection, still bore the marks of the nails that held him to the cross. Why weren’t those wounds healed?)

What if the blood of Jesus doesn’t remove our guilty stains altogether, but rather redeems them? What if the real Christmas story—not the sanitized nativity scene version—is meant to remind us that stains are an inescapable part of life on Earth—and that’s actually a good thing. What if stains are actually the flipside of giftedness4? What if the only way we can become all that God created us to be is to fully accept and embrace our stains?

No, you and I aren’t perfect people, and we never will be; but the good news we celebrate at Christmas is that by God’s grace, we are good people! We are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of our Creator and there is much good God can accomplish through us if we will simply follow Mary’s example and say, “Yes,” to God’s initiative in our lives. If we open ourselves, God can use us—stains and all—to “birth” our own unique Christmas miracle just like he did with Mary.


1 For those unfamiliar, this URL gives some context:

2 There are some (e.g., Marcus Borg) who question whether the birth narrative stories contained in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke should be viewed as history. They suggest we should view these stories more like parables. For purposes of this article, however, I am viewing the birth stories as history.

3 Thanks to Adam Hamilton for this insight. See The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, Chapter 4.

4 Thanks to Parker Palmer for this idea—see Let Your Life Speak

Alan Ward lives in Baltimore, MD and his writing can be found at Alan’s Corner.

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