We all know the Christmas story–or at least we think we do.
There are the many stories about the “meaning” of Christmas. There are stories of grinches who steal Christmas. There are stories of magical trains that transport disbelieving children to the North Pole where they are convinced that Santa really does exist. Movies abound about the warm fuzzy feelings we attribute to the “true meaning of Christmas.”
Most of us know another version of the Christmas story. That story includes idyllic images of a light-haired Mary dressed in pale blue and white and riding on a donkey. Joseph is leading the animal quietly down a rocky road with no one else in sight. We romanticize the homeless couple’s shelter and imagine the stable as a warm, cozy barn filled with friendly beasts and bathed in a golden light while angels hover overhead. Kindly shepherds and wise kings line up with the sheep and camels around a straw filled manger and a baby who seems to be the source of the glowing light.
Maybe our sanitizing and romanticizing of the Christmas story is similar to what happens to the stories of our lives as time passes. I remember Christmases from my childhood as wonderful, exciting times. My grandpa came to visit and there were cookies, the smell of the Christmas tree and the melodic sound of my father’s Norwegian accent as he read us the Christmas story from our cream colored book of Bible stories as we waited for Santa. My parents might have remembered the events differently. They might have told about having to find room in our crowded house for my grumpy and difficult grandfather. They might have shared how hard it was to find enough money in the budget to buy the gifts we so anxiously waited for. My mother might have talked about how much work she had to do to bake the cookies, clean the house, and prepare the Christmas dinner along with all of the things she regularly did.
Our version of the story of Jesus’s birth may be the same kind of selective remembering.
Jesus was born to poor parents. His teenage mother was pregnant before she and Joseph were married. They lived in a country forcefully occupied by a foreign government. The government mandated a census where everyone had to register in the town their family called home. There was no filling out a form with a census worker who came to their door. It didn’t seem to matter that Mary was ready to have a baby. They both had to go. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem would seem short if you were driving a car, but Mary and Joseph probably walked a distance of more than 90 miles up hills and down. The Bible never mentions a donkey. The dusty roads would have been crowded because everyone had to be registered. There were no rest stops or convenience stores.
The book of Luke doesn’t say why they couldn’t find any place to stay when they got to Bethlehem. It might have been because there were many travelers who had arrived before them. Possibly they didn’t have enough money for a room. Perhaps their extended family in Bethlehem already had too many people staying with them, or maybe they were turned away because Mary was an unwed mother.
Whatever the reason, staying in the barn seems to be an act of desperation for someone about to deliver a baby. The story doesn’t say if there was a midwife or any other woman there to help Mary. Our warm, light-bathed story doesn’t include how many hours of labor Mary experienced. In fact, our telling of the Christmas story is so romanticized that most children do not know that a manger is a feed trough. They think the word means the same thing as a crib or cradle.
The Christmas story is one of Good News in the midst of fear. How frightened this teenage girl must have been as she experienced the pain of labor and gave birth to her first baby among cows and sheep. Would they have enough food? Where would they cook it? Where did they warm the water needed to wash this slippery new baby? Was Joseph afraid that he wouldn’t be able to find work to support his family?
The shepherds were terrified when the angels filled the sky. The wise men were afraid to go back and tell Herod where they had found the baby. Mary and Joseph became immigrants in Egypt because they were afraid their baby boy would be killed.
The story of Jesus’s birth is not so different from the stories of many babies’ births even today. Think of how many children are born in countries where wars and conflict rage. How many begin their lives in refugee camps as their parents flee violence? Millions of babies are born to women in unclean, bare circumstances every day. Fathers fear that they will not be able to support their families. Many people are forced to travel dusty roads on foot to escape war, genocide, and religious persecution. Others leave their homes and communities to find work and a better way of life. The desperate circumstances of Jesus’s birth comes close to describing what life is like for millions of the people around the world and next door.
The good news, the Gospel, is in Jesus’s other name, “Emmanuel” or “God with us.” Jesus’s came to proclaim good news to the poor, to be with them in their fear. He is with us as we reach out to others, sometimes with fear and insecurity. May we find ways to live out that Gospel and become God’s hands and feet in the world this Christmas and for the rest of the year.