Sadness at Christmas. It’s something we all struggle with. Lost loved ones. Less than perfect holiday plans. I think twinkling lights and beautiful carols lift our hearts, but they sometimes also stir bittersweet feelings in us.

A few years back, I was captivated by a few paragraphs in a book I loved from the moment I picked it up. Katie Davis Majors, in Daring to Hope, shares her brokenness over the loss of a child just days before Christmas. In spite of her own sadness, she is called to help with a difficult birth at a poor hospital in rural Uganda. Setting aside her grief, she goes. I love to reread this section of her book each year…

Not again, Lord. My mind races as I make the short but bumpy trip. Please not again.

The hospital is dimly lit, but the pallor of Maria’s face is unmistakable as she moves in and out of consciousness. I sit on the edge of her bed and cradle her newborn son to my chest to keep him warm. Paint peels off the hospital walls, women in labor groan, and time seems to stand still as I examine his little pink fingers and toes. Maria moans for water… I stare at the cracking cement floor and think of Bethlehem.

I can imagine the stench.

Joseph has walked and Mary ridden nearly ninety miles in the scorching sun, the wind whipping around their faces and caking them with dust from the dirt road. More sweat pours from Mary’s brow as she experiences the pains of labor for the first time. The room is packed with all the travelers’ animals. Flies buzz around them in the heat, and the air is heavy with the smells of sickly sweet hay and manure.

And into this, a baby enters.

I have witnessed this kind of birth before. Woman sighs and baby falls right into the dirt and into the dark of a tiny mud hut with the light of just a thin candle, and eyes search for something, anything, sharp to cut the cord. Water is a luxury and too far away to fetch at this hour, so the women of the community wrap the baby in whatever filthy rag scraps can be found without even wiping her off first.

I picture Joseph as he searches for anything he can find in the dim light to cut the cord and then scrambles to swaddle his child, probably in the rags carrying the aforementioned stench and the dirt of the journey. Trembling and exhausted, they wrap Him as best they can and, swatting flies away, lay Him in the same trough out of which these animals have been eating.

Behold, the Savior.

And in this moment, God fulfills every promise ever made. This, God’s perfect time. This, His perfect plan. And His promise is simple and at the same time unbelievable: Emmanuel, God is with us. God Himself, right here in our mess. Even right here in my less-than-ideal Christmas. He remains the only provision I need.

He makes Himself very least, no more status or opportunity than the helpless infant I cradle, than the woman who bleeds out beside me on the bed. He makes Himself very least so that He can commune with the most desperate: us. And to the humblest, the shepherds, He sends His messengers, to call them to see. Only those who are desperate and poor and unassuming can behold the miracle that night.

He is here. God with us, here in the mess. Here in the home that is missing a four-year-old and here in the overcrowded, understaffed hospital, here on the rickety tin-frame bed in the light of the lantern. And the wretched condition of our hearts is worse than the wretched condition of the hospital, and the stench of our sin and our doubt much more potent than the stench of a barn, but that does not deter Him, God with us.

Am I humble enough to see?

Behold, the Savior.

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