With the month of December comes the focus upon Christmas and all that goes with it. Decorations have suddenly popped up everywhere, joining those Christmas decorations that have been up for weeks! Christmas carols are heard on radio stations and in the stores. And there are, of course, the ubiquitous manger scenes.
Now, before anyone thinks that this curmudgeon is on an anti-manger crusade, think again. I like manger scenes, however unhistorical most are! The manger in the Bible was doubtlessly not a barn-like structure, the conditions were doubtlessly not pristine, the three wise men were nowhere around, and there probably were more than three anyway. Nevertheless, manger scenes do emphasize Christ and, in a culture that is becoming more and more anti-Christian, it is good to see a positive portrayal of Jesus.
The problem, though, is the sentimentalizing of the birth of Christ. A baby is born to a poor couple who are required to travel when the wife is close to giving birth to her first child. They arrive at their destination to find no lodging available other than a place where animals are kept.
The scene in popular imagination and portrayal becomes almost “Walt Disney-esque.” The animals are gazing with awe-struck wonder at the little baby. The world loves the sweet story.
But the world doesn’t love the portrayal of the biblical Christ. Why? Because the manger is not the emphasis of the Bible. Outside of Matthew and Luke, the circumstances of the birth of Christ are not explicitly discussed. While those details are important because they reveal the miracle of the virgin birth of Christ, the manger was not the destination. It was part of the process to get to the cross.
The world hates the cross because the cross reveals humanity’s sin and rebellion against God. The cross reveals the nonsense of the “I’m okay; you’re okay; let’s just all accept and affirm each other’s beliefs” attitude that is so prevalent.
The world hates the cross because there is nothing sentimental about it. A holy God unleashes his wrath against a holy and innocent victim who is suffering in the place of human sinners. There’s not a good way to sugar-coat that.
The world hates the cross because it points to the hopelessness of man. It reveals that human efforts to become accepted by God are worthless. The cross reveals human sin and hopelessness and pride. The cross reveals the necessity of humility.
Unfortunately, many professing Christians glory in the manger. They gaze upon the representations therein with child-like awe and wonder. They feel “spiritual” and especially close to God. They feel at peace. And they sin if they worship that representation of Jesus, making an idol out of a baby doll.
If we celebrate Christmas without an eye on the cross, we have missed the point of the incarnation. A better depiction for manger scenes would be to have a cross in the background, because the manger becomes little more than a Hallmark moment without the cross.
One is struck by the numerous references to the cross in the New Testament. We are sinners, and we can do nothing to become accepted by God. Even our righteous acts, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, are as filthy rags. On the cross the Lord Jesus suffered the righteous wrath of the thrice-holy God. He suffered for our sins, for our rebellion. He suffered so that we would not suffer. He suffered so that justice would be served and we would be forgiven and counted righteous. He suffered so that God could receive us.
Little wonder that the apostle Paul could never get over the cross. Though he does not refer to the manger in his writings, the cross is always in the forefront. Not in the manger was his boast: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14a).