In the thirty-eight years I've attended Christmas morning services, I don't remember thinking much about the nativity crèche. After all, I'd seen the Infant, His parents and shepherds hundreds of times in churches, on front lawns and beneath Christmas trees. They blended long ago into the season's background. But a several Christmases ago, as my wife and I knelt at an altar, waiting to receive Holy Communion, the plaster figurines in front of us caught my attention. And I knew why.
My gaze had shifted for a moment to the crucifix behind the pulpit. It loomed thirty feet above the altar and suddenly brought the Christmas crèche into a new and sobering perspective.
Two thousand years ago, few people in Bethlehem recognized the importance of the stable where Joseph and Mary snuggled their newborn son. It's not hard to understand why others missed its significance. It wasn't the kind of place you'd expect to find anyone of importance.
The stable was not like the pretty pictures printed on Christmas cards. The grueling journey to Bethlehem left Joseph and Mary tired and hungry. They longed to find a place to bathe and for a warm bed. Instead, they arrived in a city of strangers, and Joseph raced in vain from inn to inn, desperately seeking a comfortable place for his wife to lie down. You know the story. They couldn't find a room in the local inn, so they settled themselves for the night in a darkened corner of a stable, to the smell of manure and rotting straw.
But in that stable, Almighty God took the form of a helpless Child and stepped into humanity to reconcile you and me to Himself. The miraculous birth in that dirty place heralded a cataclysmic transformation in the relationship between us and Himself. No one in that little town of Bethlehem knew it, but humanity's destiny revolved around that manger – and Calvary's cross looming in its shadow.
Three decades later, beneath that cross, the manger was a distant memory in Mary's heart. The Child-grown-to-be-a-Man now hung on a splintered, bloodstained crossbeam. It looked nothing like the smooth and polished cross towering above the altar in front of me. On Calvary's cross, Jesus' back lay ripped open by Roman whips. Blood from the roughly woven crown of thorns caked on His forehead. Nails holding him to the wood sent waves of searing pain across His hands and feet. Thirst ravaged his throat. His strength slowly slipped away as he struggled to breathe. Meanwhile, soldiers jeered, religious leaders mocked, and his friends and family wept.
No one on that hillside knew it, but as Jesus suffered and then died on that cross, God launched the second of His three-phased plan to rescue us from the even more horrible destiny our sins had guaranteed us.
The crèche is about the Savior's birth; the cross, about His death. The crèche cradled God's incarnation; the cross tortured Him. The crèche is about God's Son born into our world; the cross, about Him paying sin's judgment and dying in our place. But without the third phase – the empty tomb – the crèche and the cross would be meaningless. Without the empty tomb, no one would have hope for life beyond this one. No one would have assurance that we have a heavenly Father who loves us, grieves with us, yearns for an intimate relationship with us.
The crèche, the cross, and the empty tomb brought God's plan of reconciliation and redemption to completion. Because of that Divine Triad, Christians can know with absolute certainty that their sins can forgiven. The crèche, the cross and the empty tomb is God's irrevocable declaration that those who believe with obedient faith the Baby of the crèche became the Man on the cross and resurrected Savior, we have God's promise of eternal life (see John 3:16).
As I received Holy Communion that morning, I prayed I would never again see the crèche simply as a reminder of a long-ago Bethlehem birth. I hoped – and continue to hope to this very day – it will always remind me that God really does love the world so much that He gave His Son to die in our place.
I hope it always reminds me that His birth, death, and resurrection is the reason we say, "Merry Christmas!"