Several years ago, I discovered Ugly Renaissance Babies, which shows precisely what its name suggests. As you might imagine given the time period, many of these paintings are of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. I cannot recommend the site because some of the captions contain foul and blasphemous language, but I mention it because I was struck by how utterly un-baby-like the babies in these old paintings were. Jesus appears wistful and otherworldly, sometimes surrounded by a halo, sometimes even floating in the air. In many of the paintings, Jesus looks like a miniature adult, complete with an adult’s head and six-pack abs, no doubt acquired during his many hours of baby Pilates. He looks nothing like any baby I have ever seen.
Many of our modern nativity scenes do not do a much better job. Jesus often looks sweet and serene, lying in the manger, sleeping comfortably, a perfect-looking Mary and Joseph smiling above him, all three haloed and glowing. But that is not what it looks like when a baby is born, and it is probably not what the shepherds saw when they arrived at that manger. What they probably saw was chaos: Exhausted parents, a baby screaming and uncomfortable, animals making noise, the smell of their droppings in the air. This was not a pretty, picture-perfect scene, and the only reason those shepherds did not turn right back around and run the other way was because of the incredible vision they had been given of angels earlier that night, angels who assured them of what they would see, that a savior was born, that God himself had been born that night in Bethlehem. Therefore, they knew that the small, pointy-headed, crying child they were looking at was the Lord, but he more than likely did not look the part.
Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation, the mystery that God became human in order to save humanity from sin and death. On the first Christmas, God became a human being. He did not just make himself look like a human being. Jesus is not God dressed in a man suit. In Jesus, God really, actually became a human being, just like us except for sin. And if we sentimentalize his birth, we will miss that truth.
When Jesus was born, he came into the world like all of us do. He cried, like all babies cry. He needed to be fed and changed, like all babies do. He probably did not sleep through the night right away either. He was a real human being. He grew up to be a real human man, having the same attributes as other people, subject to being hot and cold, tired and stressed. He looked like everybody else from his part of the world. If you had passed him on the street, you might not have known there was anything extraordinary about him. And that is the beautiful, glorious, wonderful message of Christmas, that God became a human being just like us, minus our sin, so that we can be saved.
Speaking about Jesus, St. Gregory of Nazianzus said, “That which He has not assumed, He has not healed.” By assuming human flesh, God heals us of that which corrupts us, the sinful passions that keep us trapped in longing. But this is only possible if God really became a human being. It cannot just be a show. He cannot heal you if he does not know what it is to be you. He cannot take your sin onto himself on the cross and pay the price for it in your place if he is not every bit as much a human being as you are.
Of course, the opposite is true too. He could not have led a sinless life that allowed him to pay the price for our sins if he was not God. It is because he is both fully man and fully God that he was able both to stand in our place and to withstand the onslaught of sin and death under which we are crushed.
Christmas is God coming to rescue you and me. He does not do it through some gaudy display. He began to rescue us when he was born 2,000 years ago as an ordinary human child and lived as an ordinary human man. He continues his rescue of us today by giving himself to us in totally ordinary things, the water of the baptismal font, the wine and bread on the altar. These things are so ordinary, in fact, that most people look at them and say, “Well, what’s the point? There’s nothing special there.” But when the Holy Spirit teaches us to trust in the promises of the Scripture, we come to know that these simple, ordinary things are the very heart of our salvation, because in them we receive Jesus. That which God has assumed, he has healed. Because God was born as an ordinary baby in a barn 2,000 years ago, we are healed today.