Strange visitations: Chimneys and mangers

It was December, the fields had been blanketed with winter’s first snow, and our teacher was having trouble keeping our minds off of toys and vacation and snowball fights. Christmas was fast approaching, but I was bummed. Why? We didn’t have a chimney.

Not only that, but after a careful survey of our rooftop, it seemed woefully short for a sleigh and eight reindeer doing a high-speed landing. Our house was a Santa death-trap.

My father smiled when I explained my concerns; reindeer could stop on a dime, he said, and Santa Claus would make like Houdini and waltz right through our locked doors. But I went to bed that Christmas Eve worried. Staying awake as long as I could and peeking through the curtains, I never spotted Rudolph’s red search light.

When I awoke in the pre-dawn quiet and padded out to our living room, imagine my relief and joy when I found the tree surrounded by presents, and the milk and cookies I had left on the kitchen table gone. Santa was a genius!

God’s Christmas visitation was easy by comparison—no dicey landings on icy rooftops, no locks to pick. Just a manger and a baby—and in ancient Israel, they were both as common as dirt.

Not that there weren’t a few hitches: for instance, “The Bethlehem Problem.” Micah, that practical-joking prophet, had declared 700 years earlier that the Savior of Israel would be born in one of Israel’s least significant burgs, Bethlehem:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village in Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the time when the woman in labor gives birth to her son. Then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored all around the world. And he will be the source of our peace. —Micah 5:2-5, NLT

Mary lived in Nazareth, sixty-five miles to the north. Nearly nine months into her first pregnancy, she had acquired that slow gait and exhausted demeanor of mothers nearing their due-dates. No way was she about to hop a donkey to Bethlehem, prophet or no prophet.

Caesar Augustus forced her hand. Anxious to discover new taxpayers, he ordered a census of the entire Roman Empire. Every man was ordered to take his family to the town of his birth to be counted—Joseph, Mary’s husband, hailed from Bethlehem.

Mary’s pregnancy was itself a bit of a challenge—and an embarrassment. She was a virgin, or so she claimed. Engaged to be married to Joseph, awaiting her wedding day, suddenly everything changed—she was pregnant. Worse yet, she insisted on a novel explanation, one that no one believed: she had been visited by an angel of God and recruited to participate in a miracle—she would carry in her own body a child of God’s own making. She’d consented and found herself pregnant by some inexplicable act of God.

Joseph, doubting the God-story, assumed the worst—until he, too, had an angelic visitation:

“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to go ahead with your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus [meaning: the Lord saves], for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this happened to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet [Isaiah 7:14]:
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son
And he will be called Immanuel (meaning, God is with us.)” —Matthew 1:20-23, NLT

And that is how the virgin Mary came to be in the town of Bethlehem at the end of her unplanned pregnancy. Overflowing with visitors for the census, the young couple’s only refuge was a stable. When she gave birth to her son, Jesus, they made a bed for him in a manger.

Two stories, two extraordinary visitations. In one, a fat, jolly second-story man careens from rooftop to rooftop in a gift-laden sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. In the other, a virgin impregnated by the Almighty is led to a dusty stable where she has a son, who will reconcile God and humanity. Should both of these stories be swept into the dustbin of mythology?

Historical considerations.

  • Santa’s ancestry, date and place of birth are a mystery. No credible evidence exists for flying reindeer, North Pole workshops or Elves.
  • Caesar’s census, the trek to Bethlehem, Jesus’ ancestral connection to King David and other details have all been authenticated by Jesus’ contemporaries and modern historians. The Common Era is measured from the date of Jesus’ birth. A recently discovered burial ossuary is alleged to have contained the bones of James, brother of Jesus. It may be a fake, but no serious historian disputes the fact that Jesus had several brothers, including one named James.

Cultural considerations.

  • An industrial operation designed to manufacture and distribute billions of toys, located at the environmentally sensitive North Pole, using non-union Elf labor and endangered flying reindeer would attract swift investigations by PETA, Earth First!, Green Peace, the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO—if it existed. 60 Minutes, where are you?
  • Pregnant brides may be common today, but not in first-century Israel. Mary and Joseph could only see each other in the company of a chaperone. In small-town, religiously conservative Nazareth, Mary’s nosey neighbors would have known the truth, but no one brought evidence against Mary of sexual misconduct.

Pragmatic considerations.

  • An enormously wealthy philanthropist floods the world with free toys. Where does he get his money? How is Santa, a man several hundred years old, able to keep going year after year?
  • The eternal Creator decides to experience human life, starting as an infant? It sounds far-fetched. Jesus’ friends, even his siblings, thought he was nuts—for a time. By the end of his ministry, having witnessed his miracles and listened to his words, these who knew him best were convinced that they had actually seen the face of God.

The test of time.

  • Children believe in Santa, but by the time they grow into their early teens, they abandon their faith, never to return to it.
  • Children believe in Jesus, too, and many abandon their faith as they grow older. But oddly enough, Jesus maintains a hold over many; young and old, east and west, men and women from every nation and strata of society share a stubborn faith in Jesus. Skeptics have sought to destroy his reputation, only to find themselves embracing him. Somehow, the story of Christ endures.

We are in the midst of a season of lights and love, gifts and song, generosity and laughter, and the retelling of ancient stories. Some are meant to bring smiles to children and to strengthen the bonds of love that enrich our lives—these are good things.

The story of the Christ child, that miraculous birth of a promised Savior and Redeemer, is meant to point us to the source of life and love Himself. May the visitation of the living God become real to you this Christmas, and may you discover in Jesus Christ the God who humbled himself and slept in a manger because of love.

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