Our pastor (trustingly and graciously) asked me to write and deliver a brief reflection on a Bible passage during our church’s Lessons & Carols service yesterday. She gave me a choice of two passages: one was the well-known, bare facts version of Jesus’s birth; the second was a little flashier, about the angels appearing to the shepherds.
I chose the less exciting Bible passage, because I felt like I would benefit from spending time digging into a story I’ve heard so often that I barely hear it anymore. What follows is that passage, and my reflection upon it.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I have a really difficult time relating to Mary.
Joseph confuses me, too, but I feel like Mary should be a kind of soul sister: she was a woman, I’m a woman; she was a mother, I’m a mother.
Still, I just don’t get her. Almost every other Biblical character turns out to have been a lot like us – or, better yet, worse than us. The big names in the Bible were liars, murderers, cheats, prostitutes. But not Mary; read the Christmas story for the hundredth time, and Mary looks exactly like she did back when I was in Sunday School: humble, obedient, and perfect. Too perfect.
This is a young woman who, when an angel visits her early in Luke and tells her that she’s going to be fodder for the Nazareth tabloids by being an unwed mother to God’s son, essentially says, “Huh? Okay!” Then she starts singing poetry.
That would not exactly be my response if I were in her sandals.
Then there’s this census trip to Bethlehem with Joseph. Mary and Joseph probably traveled about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And, although most pictures seat Mary on a donkey, the Bible never mentions any donkey, so she may have been walking. The trip would have taken them about a week, give or take. And Mary was in her last trimester of pregnancy.
During my last trimester of pregnancy, I was either buying baby supplies or on the couch watching Downton Abbey. I was emotional, uncomfortable, and impatient. If I’d had to walk or – only slightly better – ride a donkey 90 miles, somebody would have heard about it, loudly and often.
As for the actual birth of Jesus, it seems that our Western image of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding no vacancy at the Motel 6, and spending the night in a barn is about as accurate as Mary riding on a donkey.
Many Biblical scholars believe that the word “inn” is a bad translation of the original Greek word “katalymati,” which is more accurately interpreted as “guest chamber” or “upper room.” Mary and Joseph were probably traveling with members of Joseph’s extended family, and because Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, they may well have been staying with his family. A truer description of what happened on Christmas Eve is probably: Because the home where they were staying was so jam-packed, Mary had no privacy and nowhere to put her baby. So she retreated to what was either – depending on the house’s setup – a cave in the backyard where animals were kept, or a lower room where the animals and servants stayed.
You want to see my husband’s eyes widen with fear? Just try presenting him with this scenario: Hey, Erick, how about if, when Faith was 9 months pregnant, she had to walk for a week to a house full of in-laws? And then, because the in-laws wouldn’t leave her alone and hadn’t gotten the crib on her baby registry, she had to give birth among animals and lay the baby in a feeding trough?
But in the Bible, Mary never makes a peep. Western Christmas culture has interpreted this to mean that she plodded along without complaint or resentment. Also: She was blonde, pink-cheeked, and beaming peacefully the whole time.
I can’t relate to any of that.
Then I re-read this passage in Luke, which most of us have heard so often that it barely registers, and I realized that we have no idea how Mary acted or felt. There’s simply not enough information. We get a brief outline of events – just the facts, ma’am — from the journey to Bethlehem through Jesus’s birth, but nothing about Mary’s reactions. For all we know, she could have nagged at Joseph the entire 90 miles to Bethlehem. She could’ve resented the heck out of her in-laws for not having a spare crib. She could’ve been terrified about delivery, and bitter that it wasn’t the birth she’d expected. (“I gave birth to the Savior, and all I got was this lousy manger.”)
Or maybe not.
But here’s what else I realized: It doesn’t matter.
I don’t have to understand Mary in order to be rocked to the core by the Christmas story, because Mary is not the point.
The one and only point is: That’s GOD lying there in the manger.
And my guess is, God was going to do his work through Mary whether she grumbled or humbly accepted it. When the angel told her God’s plan, he didn’t present it as an option. So maybe the most remarkable thing about Mary isn’t that she was perfect, but that she recognized God’s power better than I do.
This year, God has been teaching me in many ways, most of them uncomfortable, that I am not the point: that the world, the arc of history, and even God’s plans for my own life do not hinge on my personal comfort or convenience.
That kind of thinking’s not popular in our culture today. We think in terms of self- esteem and self-actualization. We say that God has a plan for our lives, and we assume that means a fairytale ending.
The Christmas story shows that God’s plan will be worked out through us regardless of whether we agree, complain, or are comfortable. We are not the point.
But not being the point doesn’t mean that we don’t matter. We know we matter, because that’s God in that manger. For us.
We can plan all we want for a comfortable birth, but God? God’s plan is to save us.
I’m now beginning two full weeks at home with all four children, all day long. So, aside from my regular obligations at The Addison Independent you probably won’t hear from me for a while. I wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas, and a joyful 2015.