“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
So we’re told by crooner Andy Williams. The first Christmas was wonderful and glorious, what with a host of angelic beings illuminating the night sky and singing heavenly songs, and an unusually bright star indicating the birthplace of the baby Saviour. The first Christmas was also humble and nondescript. The Christ was born to parents of low social standing and spent His first night sleeping in an animal feeding trough. His birth was announced to a bunch of shepherds — not exactly the who’s who of first-century Israel. What we tend to leave out is that the first Christmas was also bloody and violent.
Matthew tells us in chapter two of his gospel that Magi (sometimes referred to as wise men) came from the east to Jerusalem to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews”. Herod the Great was the king of Judea at the time. He was raised a Jew and ostensibly saw himself as king of the Jews. Upon hearing about a new king of the Jews, he was alarmed and filled with paranoia, fearing for his throne. He attempted to trick the Magi into telling him the location of the new king so that he could kill his rival, but they were warned in a dream not to tell Herod of the baby’s whereabouts. Joseph was also warned in a dream so he fled with his wife and child to Egypt.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16 NIV)
This is entirely in keeping with Herod’s record of a bloodthirsty and paranoid defence of his throne. Non-biblical historians record him killing many of his family members, fearing they might usurp his throne, including his favourite wife and his sons.
A couple of millennia onward, the human race is still guilty of infanticide. From the Nazis killing children with mental and physical disabilities, to today’s reports that ISIS have issued a fatwa to kill babies and children with Down’s Syndrome.
The violence of Christmas serves to remind us of how sinful and depraved the human race is. The weeping and mourning of the mothers of Bethlehem are not out of place in our 21st-century world. Evil still runs rampant and our world is still broken. The first Christmas was not some Disney movie where everyone lived happily ever after. The first Christmas was a time of great joy but it was joy amidst suffering and misery.
As history and experience tell us, the coming of Jesus did not mark the end of suffering and evil. But it did mark the dawn of a new era. Things are not as they once were. The game has changed. We now have a new hope.
1) The coming of Jesus means God enters into our suffering
With the coming of Jesus, God who is transcendent is now immanent and has drawn near to us. God Himself puts on flesh and comes to us in the person of Jesus to enter into our brokenness and suffering. So when we pray to Him we don’t pray to a God who is aloof or unable to sympathise. We pray to a God who knows what it is to suffer.
2) The coming of Jesus gives us hope of a new world without sin and death
The baby Jesus would grow up into a man who would suffer and die on a cross and be resurrected — defeating sin and death. Jesus has won the victory over sin and death and has initiated His kingdom rule and reign. He promises us that He will return one day to destroy sin and death completely. In Him we can have access to a new world without sin and death.
3) The coming of Jesus means we can have joy amidst our suffering
Just as the first Christmas was a time of joy amidst suffering, everyone who trusts in Jesus today can have true joy amidst their suffering. Christianity isn’t “pie in the sky when you die”. You can know true joy today! Jesus is the true and everlasting source of joy which surpasses any fleeting joy you can find on this earth.
Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.
– Augustine of Hippo (Sermons 191.1)
At the first Christmas, Jesus drew near to us. This Christmas would you draw near to Him?