Wise Men, Cute Baby, and the Stench of Dung

Our family’s manger fascinated me as a child.  The familiar scene of wise men huddled around a father, mother, and baby effortlessly augmented the decorative Christmas landscape in our living room; multicolored light strings, an ornate tree, piles of firewood, garland strands, and baby blond-haired Jesus clutching at a little sheep.  Flakes of soft wood blanketed the manger floor, Mary’s face beamed underneath her blue hood, and all of the animals focused inquisitively on a slumbering infant.  How could this not be God’s son?

Some years later I learned that the wise men were not standing by the manger when Jesus was born, that they visited his house after the fact.  This realization somehow tainted the entire story for me; it felt heretical.  If the wise men were not at Jesus’ birth, what else about Christmas wasn’t true?  Were there actually shepherds?  Was Jesus born in a manger? Did the animals even consider him?

The truth is that we misrepresent much of the Christian Story.  We try to communicate it to our children in “decent” ways; so we draw pictures of Jonah sitting before a cozy fire in the stomach of a whale, talk about the temple without the slaughter of animals, and place baby Jesus in a stable rivaling the comforts of a Radisson suite.

We even put up crosses without nail holes or blood stains.

In reality, Jesus’ birth was ugly.  The King of the universe was born out-of-wedlock to an unimportant family from a backward town belonging to an unimpressive nation, in the midst of dung and animals.  God added to this ambiance by summoning the least of the Jewish community, shepherds, to celebrate it.

When we remove the difficulty of Christmas we not only set up our children to question the event, we lose the scandal of it.  How could the One that made everything be humiliated in birth, live the life of a struggling servant, and face the shame of a public execution?

…though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

[Philippians 2:6-8]

This Christmas, when you explain to your children that we give gifts because God gave his son, tell them about his shameful appearance.  As you read the story, help them smell the dung in the air.  As you talk about Jesus’ life, tell of his struggles and infamy.  When you think about his death, remember his humiliation.  Serving a humble savior causes us to humble ourselves.

The gritty picture of the manger not only teaches us humility, it gives us hope.  We dare to hope that there is something bigger than us; that life consists of more than our comfort and pleasure.  The suffering of Jesus translates into our overwhelming joy.  If God’s Son endured such horrendous difficulty in birth, life, and death for a reason, how glorious will that reason prove to be?

Merry Christmas, loved ones.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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