From Christmas Uncut, a short evangelistic book presenting the heart of the gospel message from the Christmas narratives, for churches and Christians to give away to non-believing visitors and friends.
It's the height of ambition for most 5-year-old girls---and often their mothers, too. But in every school and church, only one girl each year can reach the dizzying height of being Mary in the nativity play.
Yet in a way, it's not such a prized role at all. In fact, it's quite strange that parents want their daughters to be Mary. We're essentially dreaming that our child will play a teenage mum who got herself pregnant in a very suspicious way, and whose life nearly fell apart because of it. Because that's what happened to the real Mary.
A nativity play begins with smiles and carols. The real Christmas began with scandal, shame, and shock.
Here's the scandal. Mary was a normal girl living in a nothing town called Nazareth, in the north of Israel. She was probably 14 or 15---and (as was normal in that society) engaged to be married. But, before Joseph had touched her, she fell pregnant.
Today, that might prompt a bit of gossip, nothing more. Then, it was hugely scandalous. They took marriage seriously in Israel---so seriously that adultery could get you stoned to death.
And that's what Mary faced. Not just dirty looks and cutting comments from other women, but a lifetime of struggle and loneliness, and the real possibility of death. But they don't mention those things in nativity plays.
Here's the shame. Imagine being Joseph. Everyone would know that Mary so hated the thought of being with you that she'd decided to go elsewhere. There aren't many things more humiliating than your girl sleeping around; and that's what the neighbors would assume Mary had done. It's amazing that Joseph was prepared to split up quietly, rather than letting everyone know what Mary did. It's even more amazing that he ended up sticking by her.
They don't mention those things in nativity plays, either.
And here's the shock. All this was God's doing.
I don't know how you imagine God, if you do at all. Maybe some old guy sitting up in the sky? Maybe some amazingly powerful force who quite frankly has more interesting things to do than care about our little lives? Maybe some distant being who really has no idea what life is actually like here on planet earth?
But here's the God of the Bible. He's a God who gets involved. Who turns lives upside down. Who doesn't act as we might expect.
He's a God who came and lived on earth, as a human.
That's the big shock. Not that a teenage girl got pregnant, and the father wasn't her boyfriend. Not that a young guy decided to stick by his girl, even though he wasn't the father.
No---the shock is that the baby "will be called the Son of God."
Who Is God?
This baby was God coming to live in human history. This baby would be human (Mary was his mother); but he would also be God. He was God's Son, who had existed with God the Father (whom we normally just call God) and God the Holy Spirit since before the creation of the world, since eternity.
And so here's a glimpse of who God is. He's Father, Son, and Spirit. He's existed as this three-in-one God, in perfect love and relationship within himself, for eternity.
That sounds quite strange. And it is! But it's also exciting. Because if this God is all about love and relationships, then the universe he's made will be about love and relationships too. It's not about power, or possessions, or just pointlessness. The God of love and relationship has made us to enjoy a life of love that lasts and of relationships that work.
That's a God worth knowing. And that's the God who was going to be born to Mary; God the Son come to live on earth.
I don't know about you, but I struggle to get my head around that news. The God of eternity, who knows and controls everything, becoming a baby who needs changing, feeding, burping. My mind can't work that out!
But then, there are lots of things that overload my brain---like the fact that light can travel from here to the sun in 8.3 minutes. That's a speed of 186,000 miles per second. My mind can't really understand how something can travel so fast (science was never my strongest subject at school). Yet I know it does travel at that speed.
We'll never understand how God could travel so far---from his throne in heaven to the womb of a woman in Israel. But he did. The angel said that this baby "will be called the Son of God." God came to earth, as one of us, to live in the world he created.
So what will God as a human be like? What does he want to tell us? What has he come to do?
At this point, Mary could only have had only a vague idea. But the night he was born, things would start to become clearer . . .
This excerpt is taken from Christmas Uncut: What Really Happened and Why It Really Matters. Get copies to read and give away here---for the next week, you can get it at 25 percent discount ($3) by entering "tgcdeal" at checkout.