I don’t object to the pictures on holiday greeting cards. There’s something very serene about the way most of the Nativity scenes are depicted. But there’s something a bit inaccurate about all that serenity. The prettier the picture of Yeshua’s birth, the more removed we are from the reality of the scene, and there are lessons we could learn from that reality.

Let’s start with the structure that served as his very first crib. Almost everyone is familiar with the hymn Away in a Manger” sung to one of two different tunes. Both melodies are lilting, and the word “manger” sounds pleasant when sung. In fact, the song is so pretty we can easily forget that the manger was a feeding trough where animals came to eat. Presumably, then, Jesus was born in a stable or barn of some sort. The text does not explicitly tell us, but where else would you find a feeding trough? And what else would you find in a stable or barn? Animals, smelly animals. Soiled straw. Possibly a variety of insects and field mice seeking shelter from the cold. Not exactly the ideal site for the birth of the King of the universe, and yet God planned it that way. Yeshua’s humble birth was not an accident, but a deliberate outworking of the will of God. Why so humble and coarse a birth?

As Yeshua grew up, the picture did not get any prettier. From Mark 6:3, we know he was a carpenter. He lived as a common laborer, not as a pampered lord. His hands were calloused, and his face was probably weather-beaten from working out-of-doors. Hardly the picture of nobility. Hardly the often-portrayed delicate features of a porcelain-faced Jesus. We learn something else from Luke: Yeshua was called “the son of Mary,” which was not a very flattering description. In those days, identifying a child as the son or daughter of his or her mother made a statement about the absence of the child’s father. It amounted to an accusation of illegitimacy. Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding his birth, Yeshua probably experienced the charge of illegitimacy from his earliest years and on throughout his entire life. Though it was a false accusation, what a stigma that was for the only begotten Son of God to bear! Yet Jesus submitted to the Incarnation, knowing that his miraculous birth would be misinterpreted and seen in an ugly light by unbelievers.

The picture becomes even less flattering when we take a look at the people Yeshua gathered to himself: harlots and tax-collectors, not to mention some illiterate or semi-literate fishermen from a poor and unsophisticated region. Could anything good come out of Nazareth? Yet that was the village God selected for the Messiah’s home town. And these were the people—am ha’aretz—people of the land, whom God had called to follow Yeshua and proclaim the gospel of the King. Why such a coarse beginning? Why such a predominantly coarse company of disciples?

If nothing else, it bears out the truth of the words of the prophet Isaiah when he described the coming Messiah as having “no form nor comeliness…no beauty that we should desire him”(Isaiah 53:2). Why did God plan it that way? Why the unpalatable birth, background and assortment of followers? Why such a coarse picture?

By divesting himself of any external trappings we might find appealing, Jesus took away any reason we might have for coming to him except one—our need for forgiveness of sin. Jesus was not the epitome of the idealized, heroic leader. We probably would not have been happily associated with many of his followers. Coming to Yeshua offered no perks, no popularity, no promise of special privilege. So why did people come? Because they knew his claims were true. They knew they were sinners. They knew only Jesus had the power to cleanse them from their sins.

And what about us? Have we come to Jesus because the pictures are so pretty and because the carols sound so sweet? Or have we come to him because only he possesses the words of eternal life? May we come to him not because the prospect is appealing, but because we crave God’s pardon for our sins.