Although most paintings don’t give any hints, Mary and Joseph experienced the stress of Christmas in ten major ways.
Traditional Christmas cards often feature a painting of the Holy Family: Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. All three are poised in holy reverence. Every hair is in place. Every robe ironed and spotless. Halos crown their heads. If there was a caption, it would say “peace.”
Nowadays, families tend to replace a painting of the Holy Family with a picture of another family: their own. As with the Holy Family, hair is in place. Warm smiles. Serene scenery. New family, same caption: “peace.”
Unruffled. Unfrazzled. Unrealistic.
Because even though we know Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace—cocoa, caroling, cozy fireside conversations—it can be the most stressful time of the year. Hours-long van trips with whining kids. Christmas shopping when traffic is congested, lines are long, and sickness is in the air. Ice scrapers. Snow shovels. Credit card bills. Heating bills. Lights that need untangled. Lights that don’t work.
Stress of Christmas: “We don’t find ourselves feeling much like the Holy Family’s portrait of peace.”
In the midst of the chaos, we don’t find ourselves feeling much like the Holy Family’s portrait of peace. Perhaps it’s reassuring that neither did the Holy Family. Here are 10 ways the Holy Family experienced significant stress around the first Christmas.
Joseph was a blue-collar carpenter (Mark 6:3) from Nazareth, a small town with a reputation of insignificance (John 1:46). According to Jewish law, after bearing a firstborn son, the parents would dedicate him to the Lord in the temple and would bring along a lamb to the temple to be sacrificed. If the family was too poor to bring a lamb, they were allowed to substitute a pair of turtledoves or pigeons (Lev. 12:8). To give an indicator of their economic status, when Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to the temple, they took birds (Luke 2:24).
Mary and Joseph seemed to be happily engaged with life going smoothly—until they both got a visit from an angel. The implications of this visit made them afraid, and that’s why the angel had to tell both separately, “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:30).
Stress of Christmas: “The angel had to tell both Mary and Joseph separately, ‘Do not be afraid.'”
When the angel explained to Mary that she would bear the Son of God and he would reign forever, you might expect Mary to respond with something profoundly holy, such as, “Hark, what wondrous news hath the angelic host bringeth unto me!” Instead, she was plainly confused: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).
Fast forward 30 years or so. In a heated conversation in Jerusalem, Jesus explains to the hostile crowd why they’re secretly hoping to kill him: “You are doing the works of your own father” (by which Jesus means the devil). They retort by saying, “We are not illegitimate children. The only Father we have is God himself” (John 8:41). Why are they implying that Jesus was born illegitimately? It’s because, some thirty years after his birth, Jesus still has rumors swirling around about his parentage. Joseph wasn’t the biological father, and given the choice between seeing Jesus as God’s Son or as an illegitimate child, perhaps of Mary and a Roman soldier, the skeptics sided with the scandalous interpretation. In fact, until an angel intervened, Joseph himself believed the scandal and was ready to break things off with his fiancé in a divorce (Matt. 1:19).
Mary and Joseph had to travel in order to be taxed (Luke 2:1-3). That’s inconvenience enough, but add in that Mary’s 9 months pregnant. The birth was inconvenient too: “There was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:7). While we’re not sure exactly the place the baby was born in (A stable? A poor dwelling where animals shared the same roof? A cave?), we know enough to know it’s not the kind of place fit for a newborn, let alone a royal one. Mary had to do the baby-wrapping herself and the closest thing they had to a cradle was a feeding trough (Luke 2:7).
Stress of Christmas: “Mary had to do the baby-wrapping herself and the closest thing they had to a cradle was a feeding trough.”
Although the nativity scene of shepherds and animals feels sentimental to us, the Messiah’s long-awaited arrival into the world must have felt very anti-climactic. No parade in the street. No relatives crowding into the delivery room. No reception at his birth except when angels intervened and assembled some grubby shepherds.
After the birth, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to dedicate their firstborn to the Lord. While there, they received a strange prophecy from a holy man named Simeon. Simeon blessed them and then spoke these words directly to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Thirty or so years later, Mary stood at the foot of a cross looking up at her beloved son; she must have thought of Simeon’s prophecy.
Stress of Christmas: “At the foot of a cross looking up at her beloved son; she must have thought of Simeon’s prophecy.”
Months after Jesus’ birth, Magi from the East arrived to meet “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:1). When King Herod heard the news about the rival king, he at first pretended to be interested in worshiping the king himself, asking the Magi to return and let him know where they had found the child. When the Magi never returned to him, Herod removed the mask and sent soldiers to Bethlehem to find and kill the child. Mary, Joseph, and the child found themselves hunted by the authorities and had to flee for their lives.
The Holy Family fled to Egypt, where they stayed as refugees until Herod the Great died. When they returned, they settled in their original hometown of Nazareth in northern Israel (Galilee).
Perhaps Mary and Joseph wondered why they suddenly faced so much chaos and disruption. One of the biggest reasons is that they had both enlisted in a cosmic battle far more serious than they could have envisioned. The Messiah’s birth on devil-occupied earth established a crucial beachhead in the cosmic war between good and evil. Mary and Joseph found themselves at the war’s epicenter. Frightened, confused, inconvenienced—what else should they expect? Just this: that the God who enlisted them in his war against evil is the same God they could entrust themselves to and find peace amidst the chaos.
Stress of Christmas: “The God who enlisted them in his war against evil is the same God they could entrust themselves to and find peace amidst the chaos.”
And so it is with us. On days we feel disadvantaged, frightened, confused, and so on, we find that peace comes not from life’s smoothness but from God’s goodness through whatever chaos we find ourselves in.