I know of parents who, in an attempt to stave off greed and materialism in the hearts of their children, limit the number of Christmas presents each child receives to three. Why three? The thinking goes like this: If three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—were enough for Jesus, then three wrapped packages under the tree should be enough for any child.
There is a part of me that loves the thought of keeping Christmas simple, of making sure it’s about more than the gifts. But there is also a part of me that sees Christmas as a time to be extravagant with the people we love because our heavenly Father was extravagant with his love for the world on the night Jesus was born. Christmas should always be about more than getting gifts, but it should also certainly be a day unlike any other—a day to love one another with reckless abandon. Then again, it may be that having three boxes under the tree will serve as the greatest reminder of God’s amazing grace after all—because, as it turns out, the story of redemption, wrapped up at Christmas, is the story of three boxes too.
The manger is one of these boxes. Though we tend to think of the Christmas manger as a wooden stand filled with hay, feeding troughs in the ancient Near East were typically made of stone. The trough that exists in our imaginations comes from Renaissance art, where a typical Western European manger was often pictured. The makeshift crib where Mary placed the baby Jesus was likely a hollowed out, rectangular block of stone—a simple container designed to last a lifetime and withstand the abuses of hungry animals coming to feed. In the incarnation, we have the most extraordinary of miracles: the infinite God of the universe placed inside such a box.
But the manger is really the second box to cradle the presence of God. In the Old Testament, God had instructed the Israelites to build another box. This one—the ark of the covenant—arrived early for the first Christmas by about 1,500 years. It was a wooden chest wrapped in gold, and it was the place where God’s presence dwelt among his people, the place where heaven and earth met.
Of course, God cannot really be contained in any box. He is everywhere. As David writes,
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me (psalm 139:7–10).
But in a special and mysterious way—a way that even the world’s greatest theologians cannot quite wrap their heads around—God allowed his presence to be with the ark. He did this so that his people would have a visible, tangible reminder of his love for them and of his holiness.
The ark was a symbol of the covenant God had made with his people—a covenant of law and sacrifice, of blessings and curses; it was a covenant based on God’s perfection. Since God is utterly holy—thoroughly good, true, and beautiful—nothing sinful can enter into his presence without being destroyed. The law God gave to Israel contained prescriptions for dealing with sin and brokenness, sacrifices that would cover over sins so that corrupt and wicked people might continue to walk with him. But the ark was like the God it represented: holy. No ordinary Israelite could come near—and certainly no one could touch it. The ark was always to remain at a distance, representing the distance between God and his people that had been imposed by sin.
Only through blood could one man, the high priest, approach the first box—the ark—and then, only one day a year. But the second box—the manger—invites all to draw near. Luke records that the shepherds on that first Christmas night “went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (2:16). No one in the Old Testament would have dreamed of approaching the ark in such a hurry. Just compare the shepherds’ experience with that of Uzzah, one of the men who helped transport the ark to Jerusalem under King David:
And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God (2 samuel 6:6–7; cf. 1 chronicles 13:9–10).
By all accounts, Uzzah’s intentions were good; he was trying to keep the ark from falling off its cart and smashing to the ground. And he still died. But that’s the point: No matter how good our intentions are, because of sin, we will never be able to draw near to God’s holiness. That’s what the manger—the second box—is all about. We can’t come to him, so he came to us. Jesus left his heavenly home to come to earth. Wrapped in flesh, he laid aside his glory so he could be close to the people he created. All are welcome to gather around the manger-crib—filthy shepherds straight from the fields, Gentile astronomers bearing lavish gifts, those who are looking for the Messiah, and those who are not. There is no danger of an Uzzah-event happening at the manger; our invitation is borne out of God’s grace and not our own righteousness.
But God is not content with merely joining us in our broken world; he wants us to live with him forever. And that’s why there’s a third box in this grand story.
In Jesus’s day, the people of Israel had a unique burial tradition. When someone died, his or her body would be placed in an aboveground tomb, wrapped up in strips of linen but laid out on a bench. Over the course of the following year, the person’s body would decompose, and on the anniversary of the death, the family of the deceased would return to the tomb for a “second burial.” The bones would be collected and placed in a small limestone box called an ossuary. The ossuary would then normally be placed on a shelf inside the tomb alongside the bone-boxes of family members who had previously died.
After Jesus breathed his last and was taken down from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (both secret disciples of the Lord) retrieved his body and placed it in an aboveground tomb—wrapping it in cloth strips and preparing it with burial spices (john 19:38–42). But no one returned a year later for the “second burial” part of the tradition. That’s because Jesus didn’t stay dead. His sacrifice on the cross was payment for our sins, and God raised his Son up on that first Easter morning to show the world that the way had been made for us to be with him forever.
When Jesus died, the Bible tells us, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (matthew 27:51). This curtain, or veil, guarded the Most Holy Place in the Jewish temple, the room that had once housed the ark of the covenant. The curtain was 60 feet high, 30 feet wide, and about 4 inches thick; the only one who could tear it in two was God himself. But because he did so, those of us who know Jesus Christ—who have given our lives to him and have accepted his sacrifice on our behalf—are now free to enter into God’s holy presence. Nothing can ever separate us from his love, not even our own sin. Because the third box of Christmas—Jesus’s ossuary—never existed, we can rest knowing that we have eternal life, the greatest Christmas present of all.
Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (john 17:3). And that’s what Christmas is all about: God creating a way, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus, for us to have eternal life. We can spend our time on earth walking closely with him and all the days afterward in his eternal embrace. We were created to know the goodness, truth, and beauty that come from the hand of the Father. At Christmas we celebrate the moment when Goodness, Truth, and Beauty himself was born of a virgin and placed in a manger.
God cannot be contained within a box. If we look around, we can see rays of his goodness peeking through the clouds, glimmers of his truth sparkling in the rain, and echoes of his beauty drowning out the noise that surrounds us. There will come a time when the earth will be overtaken; heaven will come down, and God’s glory will cover every square inch of this world. On that glorious day, we will, perhaps, pause for a moment while being overwhelmed with wonder to remember that this whole thing started with the first outpost of his goodness—a manger in the small town of Bethlehem.