She brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn. — Lk. 2:7

The first Christmas was not exactly a greeting card setting with all its unreality — snow-covered cottages with bright lights within, Frosty the snowman, peaceful country scenes, mesmerized animals surrounding the Christ child in a sanitized atmosphere. A card that depicted the way it really was might be revolting — a bone-tired pregnant girl, a worried husband, streets crowded with people on an unpopular errand, an indifferent innkeeper, a dark, cold cave crowded with smelly animals, a feeding trough for a cradle.

Joseph and Mary had probably walked the eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, being the poor family they were.  If they had a donkey or mule to carry their supplies, there may have been room for Mary to ride part of the time. A pregnant girl on the way to the hospital on a mule! Not exactly like going in a BMW! They would hardly make fifteen miles a day. Other pilgrims, also on their way to Bethlehem to be registered but less burdened, would pass them by. For upwards of a week – night after night — Joseph had to find a place for his wife, heavy with child. He well knew that she might give birth anytime, day or night, along the way. He didn’t know that it was in the script — foretold by the prophets — that the child would be born in Bethlehem. The God of heaven moved a pagan king to declare a tax registration in order to move a pregnant girl eighty miles so that she would be at the right place at the right time! But poor Joseph didn’t know that. He was one worried husband.

The Bethlehem streets were filled with a mix of cultures from far and near. The few who could afford the paltry sum had filled the only inn in town. Even the inn provided only the barest shelter. Guests brought their own bedding and food, and drew their own water. Many were sleeping in the alleys and the streets, huddled around improvised fires. But a woman whose time was near needed to be inside — anywhere. Justin Martyr, who lived within a century of the event, says it was a cave, next to the inn, where the expectant couple took refuge. It housed the animals of those who stayed at the inn. Hardly a place to serve as a delivery room!

Like all such caves, particularly one that served as a stable, it was dark, drafty, dirty and dismal. Rats and bats dwell in caves, and pariah dogs scavenger there. Noise from the streets and the inn would be incessant. The animals, even if obnoxious, provided some heat against the cold night. Joseph found a place amidst the straw for Mary. Weary and fatigued, she could at last rest. Heaven had set the stage for the world’s most celebrated event. It was December 25, 4 B.C. The eminent Jewish Chrstian scholar, Alfred Edersheim, says that date is probably correct.

Sometime that evening the Christ was born. To a Jewish peasant girl, not a Roman princess. In a stable amidst snorting horses and bellowing oxen, not in a palace with royalty in attendance, including doctors and nurses. In an insignificant village — “the least of the clans of Judah” — not in sophisticated Athens or powerful Rome. He was lovingly and snugly wrapped in long, narrow bands of cloth by his own mother and laid in in a hay trough. He was not wrapped in a royal wool blanket and placed in a gold-studed bassinet stamped with the insignia of a prince.

Not exactly the stuff of Christmas cards depicting old English villages, with ladies in sedan-chairs, or a coach bowling merrily along pulled by handsome stallions. Or a plastic tree sprayed with artificial snow and bedecked with flashing lights and all sorts of figurines. It was not the makings for a pretty-pretty little Christmas. It was ugly — the real world of ugly reality. There was bartering in the streets, endless chattering, and the boisterous noise of revelry all night long. The Christ was born into a world of sin, suffering, and sorrow. It began for him that night when but a babe. It persisted all the way to Calvary.

There were no heralds in the streets proclaiming the birth of a prince. There was no news bulletin from the high priest’s office in Jerusalem, six miles away, and no trumpets blaring from Herod’s palace but a short distance from Bethlehem. It was the world’s most momentous event, but the world had nothing to say. The press did not cover the story. There was no mention of it in the papers, not even on the back page.

But heaven was very aware of what was going on, and God Almighty sent an angel to declare the good news — to lowly shepherds tending their flock a mile or so away!  In our culture that would be like breaking “the greatest news story ever” to a gathering of garbage collectors. An angel spelled out the good news — that was for all people — to the frightened shepherds, “There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” At this announcement the shepherds were surrounded by a multitude of angels, who cried out, as if in song, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Then they were gone. It was the same old world once more. But now it was different, for light had come into the world.

All this is awesome and exciting when seen in the context of the real world, the world then and the world now — nations at war, political intrigue, broken families, broken lives, broken hearts, the spoils of selfish pride. It was not “a peaceful night that Christ was born,” as the poet Milton would have it — just as it is not a peaceful world today. But therein is the good news. The ugliness of the first Christmas is what makes Christmas beautiful. Into this brutal, ugly world of darkness came light — a light that the darkness cannot overcome.

The way God did it all scores our sinful pride. It isn’t the way we would do it with all our wisdom! He saved us by giving us a baby, not a clever philosophy, not even a book. He chose a peasant girl, not a princess. A stable in a humble village was his venue, not a palace in a renowned city. It was despised shepherds who came calling, not a delegation from the Sanhedrin. God doesn’t just surprise us, he humiliates us by his own humility. The ultimate humiliation is the Cross itself — the grace of God gloriously manifested — a staggering repudiation of human pride that presumes it can save itself.

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” the apostle Paul assures us in 1 Corinthians 1:20. And he goes on to say, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things that are mighty.”

And why? The apostle makes it clear — “so that no human being might feel boastful  before God.”

That is why the ugliness of Christmas is its beauty. And that is why we must not yield to the temptation at Christmastime to withdraw from the real world of stress, strife, and sorrow into a world of unreal beauty.