I have some bad news: Much of what you think you know about Christmas is wrong.
But I also have some good news. In fact, I have the good news. Because the truth of Christmas according to Saint Luke is both more ordinary and more wonderful than what we get from countless carols and paintings about the birth of Jesus.
Contrary to our sentimental greeting-card notions about Christmas, straightforwardly Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth quite straightforwardly. Joseph and Mary are an ordinary couple whose lives play out under the influence of the distant impersonal demands of Roman imperial power. They go to Bethlehem in all probability because they own property there, almost certainly not a house (otherwise they would live there when they arrive) but taxable agricultural holdings.
Upon arrival in Bethlehem at the orders of the occupation Roman government something quite natural comes about: Mary gives birth to her son. The word “inn” in our translation is a terrible choice. The Greek word Luke uses means a public room in a house. Joseph and Mary are not denied a place to stay by a mean innkeeper. They are neither homeless nor refugees: They are given a place to stay, possibly by relatives, but this space is not private and so not fit for a woman to give birth to a child. Jesus is laid in an animal’s feed trough because animals would have in most homes been kept very close by, and Joseph and Mary are improvising.
So in one way the birth of Jesus Christ is in fact an entirely ordinary affair.
But it is also wonderful. Because heaven itself witnesses to the historical importance of this birth.
You may have heard that shepherds were particularly lowly in the estimation of the time. This too is not really fair. Abraham, Moses, Rachel, and King David himself, with whom Luke already compares Jesus even in infancy, were all shepherds.
You also probably are picturing the angels being arrayed in the heavens, looming above these shepherds, but this too is unlikely. Luke simply says that an angel appeared, which in the Greek suggests that the angel stood on the earth, alongside the ordinary shepherds.
While we are at it you can also toss out your mental image of an angel. The reason in the Bible that angels always tell people “Be not afraid” is because an angel is not a glowing blonde candy-colored creature but rather is entirely terrifying.
An angel in the Bible always is terrifying because an angel bears a message from God. In this case the message is good news. And in fact the word here for “good news” is none other than what we call in English “gospel” so the gospel we go on about in church so much is in fact about to be revealed.
So what is this good news, what is the gospel at its very heart? It is nothing less than the very meaning of Christmas. In fact, it is the meaning of everything.
It is “Good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
What is the good news? It is great joy.
Many people find it hard to be joyful at this time of year. Perhaps you come here tonight in great weariness. Or great despair. Or great fear. Maybe you are sick to death of a sentimental Christmas message, of being told that Christmas is about family or giving or some other sugar-coated nonsense.
Fortunately the great joy of Christmas is deeper than all that. And it is for all people. That means it is for anyone who is suffering right now. For anyone who is addicted or in pain or alone.
This day. Right now. This day is born “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This is the good news for all people.
And no matter who you are, that includes you.
The phrase in Greek “for you” is used three times by Luke, a fact that is obscured in our translation. The angel says “I bring you good news” and “to you is born this day” and “this will be a sign for you.” All of them read the same in the original language.
Because the good news of Christmas is quite simply for you. Not just for Luke’s original readers. Not for the powerful, rich, or high-functioning. But for all people. And that means you.
The good news is for you.
The birth of Christ is for you.
The sign of his birth is for you.
This is the real meaning of Christmas: God entered into human life and loved every part of it from birth to death. God was born to an ordinary mother in an ordinary place at an ordinary time.
And yet everything about Jesus Christ’s life was wonderful. He is the Lord, but he spends his whole life serving others. He is the Christ, the chosen one of God, but he chooses to suffer and die for humanity. He is the savior, but he saves us from our sins by refusing to save himself from the cross.
Christmas is a cosmic, wonderful truth made entirely personal and ordinary. It is the coming together of the earthly and heavenly. So if we agree that on this day God became human, that the wonderful became ordinary, then together we truly can celebrate a very happy Christmas indeed.