Living into the mess of Christmas

November 10, 2021 by Glen Bell

Oh, Christmas is messy. Whoa, is it messy!

The simple description of Luke doesn’t begin to cut it: “While they were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 1:6-7)

We haven’t yet reached in the story all those things pictured on Christmas cards, angels and glory and singing and a multitude of the heavenly host.


Instead, we come face to face with labor and delivery, the messiness of new life, the radical inconvenience of a birth far from home and family. Not even in a simple room, in an inn. But rather a stable, dirty, smelly, ordinary.

This year here in Louisville, I am looking forward to Christmas with Artie. Our grandson, who lives only eight miles from us, will be 28 months old this Christmas. He’s just old enough to notice the decorations, remark on the lights and tree, and comment on the presents that are waiting there.

We kept Artie for a long weekend last month as our daughter and son-in-law went away to celebrate their 10-year wedding anniversary. It was great fun to be with him Thursday through Sunday – but it was not an ethereal experience of delight. No, it included trips to the zoo and playground, checking out the robot lawnmower in our neighborhood, and a new Paw Patrol fire engine for him. But it was also marked by falling asleep at the wrong time, refusing to take a nap one afternoon – and throwing a tantrum on the floor of the local supermarket.

Life is messy. It is real.

Hearts are broken – and hearts are mended. Friendships are renewed – and friendships are ended. We achieve all sorts of great things – and we make terrible mistakes.

Who knows how Mary may have shivered after giving birth?

Who knows how tiny and helpless Jesus seemed amid the mess and the mucus?

Who knows how exhausted Mary may have been in that rude stable?

We don’t know – but we can imagine.

Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes, “We cannot create justice without getting close to places where injustices prevail. We have to get proximate.”

You and I have to get close.

Close to the blood.

Close to the mess.

Close to the pain.

Close to the wounds.

Close to the exhaustion.

Christmas is all about incarnation. Hebrews 2:14-18 makes clear that Jesus Christ was flesh and blood, just like all the descendants of Sarah and Abraham. He became like us in every way except sin, so that he might be our priest – and give himself for our sake and the sake of the world.

As People of Incarnation, we do not turn away from the weariness and the wounds. We face our failings – and carry them with us on The Way of trust and faithfulness. We are people of faith and goodness by God’s grace. But we are equally people of mess and blood and pain and wounds and exhaustion.

This season, my hope and prayer is that the Spirit of Christ gives each of us the courage to live our lives in incarnate ways, breathing, tasting, touching, always mindful that we are a beautiful mystery of soul and body fused together.

And as we worship the Incarnate One, let us also follow Jesus on the journey, giving ourselves away to those in the neighborhoods right around us, offering our best freely as we live and serve.

May the joy of the Incarnate One, born in a stable, be yours this season

Even amid the mess.

Rev. Dr. Glen Bell joined the Foundation in August 2020 as Senior Vice President of Development. Before joining the Foundation, Glen dedicated 30 years as a pastor in a wide variety of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations, serving churches in North Carolina, Indiana, and Florida, including serving as executive pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana, and pastor/head of staff, First Presbyterian Church, Sarasota, Florida. You can reach Glen at