By Bob Mink
The Christmas season is a special time of year for almost everyone—especially its sights, sounds, and smells. Who doesn’t like the smell of a fresh-cut tree or of cookies baking? Who doesn’t appreciate a “Merry Christmas” greeting or festive holiday music? Who isn’t drawn to the lights and decorations? I enjoy all these at Christmastime every year.
And why not? Christians can decorate a tree, bake special cookies, and give gifts all while fully embracing the meaning in the birth of Jesus. And maybe thinking about the sights, sounds, and smells of that first Christmas can make our own celebrations this year more meaningful.
I See a Star . . . and a Woman
Sometime after the birth of Jesus, I see an unusual and special star. Awhile later, I see rich travelers from the East kneeling in worship before Jesus, and giving him gifts they have brought. Matthew 2:1 tells us these are wise men, or magi, who came to Jerusalem after seeing the king of the Jews’ star rise. The star is hard to explain, but what a sight it is! After getting some help from the chief priests and teachers of the law, the wise men set out for Bethlehem. And because these wise men follow the star, they find Jesus.
But I am most intrigued by the sight of a pregnant woman named Mary. You cannot always tell when a woman is pregnant; some can be pregnant for several months without showing. But when Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem, Luke 2:5 reports she is “now obviously pregnant.”*
We can draw some wrong conclusions if we rely solely on our eyes. There is so much more to this story. Mary is engaged to Joseph when she becomes pregnant, but her fiancé isn’t the father. As a matter of fact, she is still a virgin. Even today, many still refer to her as Virgin Mary. The angel Gabriel told her the Holy Spirit would come upon her, she would conceive, give birth to the Son of the Most High, and name him Jesus (Luke 2:26-38).
In his conception, we see a combination of the human and divine in Jesus. Physically, Jesus is Mary’s son; legally, Jesus is Joseph’s son (because in naming him, Joseph becomes the legal father). But in reality, Jesus is God’s Son. That’s why he also is given the name Immanuel, “God with us.”
I Hear the Praise . . . and the Weeping
The first sounds I hear are praise. The biblical account of the first Christmas is filled with praise to God. In Luke 1:46-55, Mary offers praise in response to Elizabeth’s words. In Luke 1:67-79, when he gets his voice back, Zechariah’s song is filled with praise. In Luke 2:13, 14, the shepherds witness a great company of angels praising God. And in Luke 2:20, when the shepherds return to their sheep, they are “glorifying and praising God.”
But earlier, back in Nazareth, there was scorn, not praise. There was gossip about Mary, and carping, and judgment. She was, after all, pregnant and unmarried. It was big news in that small town, and people did not believe her story. Joseph didn’t believe her either, until an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream (Matthew 1:20).
More disturbing to me than the gossip and criticism of Mary in Nazareth, is the weeping I hear in Bethlehem and the area around it sometime after Jesus’ birth. Herod is so insecure and threatened by what he learns from the wise men about the birth of the King of the Jews, that he slaughters all the boys 2 years old and younger. The resulting grief is such that the disciple quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “A cry was heard in Ramah—weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead” (Matthew 2:18).
I Smell Animals . . . and Shepherds
I smell animals at the place where Jesus is born. Luke 2:7 says Mary “laid him in a manger,” that is, an animal feeding trough. We know “there was no lodging available for them” (Luke 2:7) when they arrived in Bethlehem. Jesus apparently is born in a stable, barn, or cave where animals are kept. His crib is a manger. And so I smell animals on that first Christmas.
I smell a campfire out in the fields on the night of Jesus’ birth. The shepherds, who are guarding their flocks, are the first to hear the news. The fire offers warmth, a place to gather and fellowship.
But what most intrigues me is the smell of the shepherds. I don’t want to be too graphic, but think about it. These shepherds have been out in the field with sheep for days . . . perhaps weeks. It’s been awhile since they bathed. And after being visited by the angels, they no doubt run to the village where Mary, Joseph, and the baby are. They are perspiring—smelly—as they marvel at the baby in the manger.
Who are these shepherds? There is only one announcement of Jesus’ birth recorded in Scripture, and it is given to these shepherds. They must be important . . . but they aren’t. In fact, they are some of the least important people in Jewish society. They are looked down upon. They cannot participate in religious feasts and holy days. They are considered dishonest and unreliable. But angels, at God’s direction, announced Jesus’ birth to them and invited them to see his newborn Son.
The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Christmas Then and Now
What are we to make today of these sights, sounds, and smells of the first Christmas? If we imagine the star, we can be drawn to Jesus. If we see the wise men kneeling before him, we too can worship him. If we hear the praise of that first Christmas, we can join in. If we hear gossip and judgment, we can reject it. If we smell the campfire and the animals around the manger, we can thank God for the humble place of Jesus’ birth and his not so religious first visitors.
And when we picture this young, pregnant woman, we realize why she is still held in such high esteem! This teenager serves as a model for us today in her humble acceptance of God’s call upon her life. In her own words, she was “the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38). In retrospect, we might stress her wonderful privilege in carrying, giving birth to, and nurturing the Son of God. But when we consider the responsibility she assumed, and what she must have gone through, this pregnant woman is a sight to see and deserves our appreciation.
And as we consider the weeping of those who lost sons, we are reminded that even though Jesus came, evil remains. Christmas is indeed a special time, but for some it is difficult. The lights of Christmas, for some, only accentuate the darkness they feel because of grief and pain. But Jesus will come again! And then “he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Until then, remembering his first arrival and anticipating his second, we ask the Lord to help us walk in faith.
The smelly shepherds can remind us that the good news still is for “all people” (Luke 2:10). God’s love and the message of salvation through Jesus are not based upon class, wealth, or social standing. The shepherds believed and responded to the message of the angels. Then they told others about it and praised God for it.
You may feel like you are on the outside looking in. If you’re not especially wealthy, influential, or powerful, you may identify with the shepherds. And if you do, you can follow their example of responding the way they did. As a matter of fact, we all can follow their example!
*Scripture quotes are from the New Living Translation of the Bible.
Bob Mink serves as adjunct professor of biblical studies with Hope International University, Fullerton, California.