December 24, 2018
It is sometimes hard to remember how challenging the story of Christmas must have been for those who were actual participants. As I reread this powerful but familiar story I was struck by three things that each of the participants in this story had to face: First, something very unexpected happened, which then caused them to have to face their fears, and as a result they had to journey from what was known and safe to a place of vulnerability and unfamiliarity.
When the story begins we see both Mary and Joseph being visited by messengers who tell them that Mary will have a child. For both of them it is unexpected news –and not necessarily good news either! It was a problem! What would their parents think? What would the neighbors think? What would the Rabbi think? This changed everything and they had a choice to make.
It is interesting to see the different ways that Mary and Joseph confront their fears. Mary is greeted by a messenger who tells her of God’s plan to save the world, but the Bible tells us that Mary was very troubled by this messenger. Interestingly, she is not at all distracted or seduced by all the powerful images of what God plans to do through this baby that she will bear. Instead she is very practical. Why me and how is this going to happen, she asks. I find her response very reassuring and very human, don’t you? The messenger reassures her and Mary listens and agrees, but it is not until Mary visits Elizabeth several months later and sees that Elizabeth is pregnant, just as the messenger had told her, that Mary fully embraces the enormity of what God is doing and prophecies about what impact this unexpected event would have on all humanity. Her powerful words, known as the Magnificat, are just as challenging today as they were then. By facing her fears, and embracing this new reality, Mary not only becomes a mother but she is empowered, finding her voice in a new way, and exalts in God’s hope and purpose for the world.
Joseph responds a bit differently. When he finds out that Mary is pregnant he is afraid for their reputations, and worried about how this unexpected gift from God will change their lives. We are told that he was planning to quietly sever their engagement. But soon after he decides to do this a messenger comes in a dream and tells Joseph that this child will be special and that it is all part of a greater plan. When he awakes, Joseph decides to marry Mary. Joseph’s response, although more nuanced and quiet, is just as powerful as Mary’s.
The Bible tells these stories without a lot of description of what Mary and Joseph must have felt or what they were thinking. It records instead what they did and said. That sometimes creates this enormous barrier between us and them. They seem so holy and so obedient. And yet I think that misses the real story. They were just like us, filled with their own hopes and fears, thinking about how their life would be together. They had plans, and then they got some unexpected news that turned those plans upside down, and in that moment they had to face their fears and decide how they were going to move forward.
The journey to Bethlehem must have been interesting. Were they dreaming of a new future that now included this baby? One thing we know is that they weren’t choosing baby names, or planning a gender reveal party! I am sure that like any journey it was exhausting. Google says the distance is about 100 km or a 4- 5 day journey. Mary and Joseph would probably have gone with a group of people to protect themselves from bandits, and although all the pictures show Mary riding a donkey, the Bible does not mention a donkey at all. So instead, most scholars think that Mary, at almost full term, probably walked 15-20 kilometers a day – about 6-8 hours a day. No wonder that as soon as she arrived in Bethlehem the baby came!
This journey took them to a new place, a place where they were not well known, were more vulnerable, and on their own. There, in Bethlehem, because there was no room for them in the inn, they took shelter in a stable – vulnerable to both the elements and the animals – and in that unexpected place the promised one, God with us, was born.
Now the shepherds were out in the hills watching their flocks. Those who have researched shepherds and shepherding of that time say that shepherds lived far away from the villages up in the hills for most of the year, coming down out of the mountains in the spring after the new goats and sheep had been born. Many of them did not own the flocks they watched, but were merely hired help watching flocks owned by wealthier people in the surrounding towns and villages. Shepherds were known to be a rough and dirty lot, uncouth and without manners. Many of the flock owners were suspicious of the shepherds since it was not unheard of for the shepherds to take and hide the best of the sheep for themselves and then report to the flock owners that the sheep had died or gone missing. It was a hard life, living outdoors, having to be on guard 24 hours a day, because sheep are pretty stupid animals and get lost or into trouble all the time. So the shepherds were kind of an outcast group, living a life removed from the villagers.
So isn’t it interesting then that the very first people to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth were the shepherds? They hear this good news when unexpectedly messengers appear, praising God and telling them there was good news for them – good news for ALL people. A baby had been born, a savior, and they would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Of course the shepherds are afraid by the loud and sudden appearance with all the singing intruding on their quiet, contemplative fields. But they stay and listen to the message and then they have to make a decision. Do they leave their flocks and go find the child or do they stay and ignore the message? I imagine this was no easy choice. They probably didn’t enjoy going into the village very much. They were not really welcomed, and the owners would have been furious at them for leaving the sheep unattended. So the choice to go on this journey into Bethlehem was not an easy one. But they did go and they did find the baby, and they couldn’t stop sharing the story – and all who heard it were amazed.
Do not be afraid, the messengers say. But we are afraid, aren’t we? In our own lives there are unexpected events, times when we have to face our fears, and times when we journey into a new place or a new understanding. And that is frightening.
Sometimes like Mary and Joseph, our lives can be completely overturned- our plans no longer useful. It is a scary time requiring us to face our fears and move forward. We are in a new and different landscape where our normal landmarks are no longer visible and we know we have a long journey ahead of us.
Sometimes, like the shepherds, we are stuck in our old routines, until suddenly the unexpected arrives and we must choose to follow a new and hopeful revelation or stay stuck doing the same old thing.
The Christmas story replays itself again and again in our lives, as God reveals God’s self to us in new and different ways all the time. But God willing, and with the support and nurture of others who are with us on the journey, we will embrace the unexpected, experience the power of facing our fears, and journey into the unknown so that we too can experience the transformation that God invites us to not just at Christmas but every day of the year.
May it be so!