Christmas plays and pageants, movies and books, present the nativity story in much the same way: Mary, very pregnant and sitting on a donkey; Joseph, leading her gently and trying to negotiate a room with an innkeeper; the stable, filled with animals and a soft glowing light; a fringe of haggard-looking shepherds at the stable door….
I think we’ve got a few things wrong.
Sure, the main characters of the story are the same and the main events are the same, but some details have been blurred by the westernization of our retelling the nativity story. As I’ve pondered again this amazing opening scene of Jesus’ life story as a man, I’ve wondered at the nuances of context and culture that maybe we’ve failed to recognize. So I’ve been reading about the culture and times surrounding Jesus’ birth, tried to recognized and re-think the events in the context of this information.
Here’s a little bit of an idea, a new way to think about Jesus’ birth.
Mary shifted her position and popped a pomegranate aril into her mouth, savoring its tart juice.
The weight of her full belly rested now on her hips and her back relaxed against the cushion—actually just a rolled up shawl—and she felt the constant discomfort ebb. She sighed and listened to the layers of conversations that arose from the courtyard below and watched the last tendrils of daylight sink into the horizon beyond the township. The cool of the air and the snap of the pomegranate juice and the peaceful corner she had found all served to calm her.
Mary thought again about the angel Gabriel’s face, the kind look in his eyes, the strength of his jaw, the strangeness of his presence that both terrified her and thrilled her. Often, when she was most afraid, she thought of this face. A face that has seen Yahweh, she thought, imagine that.
She closed her eyes and rested her head against the stone wall, still warm from the day’s sunshine, and waited for a breeze. How can I feel such calm? The world was a terrible place. Just today reports came in about a cluster of crosses erected near the roadway into Jerusalem. At dawn a crucifixion would commence. Three “radicals”, rebelling against Roman taxation, would be tied to the long poles and punished for their insurrection.
It was happening more and more. People were tired of Rome. Tired of taxation and barely existing beyond chattel slavery, tired of everything. Her people. Even now the debate below became heated and hushed. She could hear Joseph’s measured words and calm tone in the conversations. Yes, Herod was a beast, a weapon of evil, a sorry excuse for a Jew, but are these rebel-leaders the men we should follow? To what end will rioting lead us toward?
“Ah, so you’ve found a little nest wherein to rest?”
Mary opened her eyes and looked at Elizabeth, baby John in her arms.
“John’s ready for his after-dinner snack,” her eyes smiled in the twilight as she clucked and cooed and readied herself to feed him. “Mind if I join you up here in your perch?”
“No, not at all,” replied Mary, meaning it.
Elizabeth was the mother, the sister, the friend, the only person in the world—aside from Joseph, and maybe even more so—that understood her. Mary leaned her head on Elizabeth’s shoulder and listened to John slurp his milk. Oh, she wished she were an infant herself.
“I’m not up to the task,” she heard herself say aloud.
“Of course you’re not,” agreed Elizabeth in her characteristic candor, “None of us is. When I think of my inadequacies, I remember the words of the angel. What he said to Zechariah… that this stubborn baby would be filled with the Holy Spirit…in the power of Elijah…. That he would prepare the people for their Lord!”
Elizabeth recited the angel’s words and her voice lilted as if in song.
“I am willing. Just overwhelmed sometimes.”
“Sure you are, my dear, sure you are. It’s no small task to have a baby and here we are having the babies that will change the world. They will be the men that all people will hear but they began in the wombs of an old woman and maiden. And the secret is in our safekeeping.”
“It seems the world is pregnant with hate and violence. I can’t picture in my mind a Prince of Peace.”
“Mary, you are wise beyond your years,” Elizabeth said. She handed the bundle of baby John to Mary. His head nuzzled into her neck and his small, soft body seemed to embrace her hard, round belly.
“You yourself told me that whatever it takes you will glorify the Lord because you think always of his mercy towards us. You don’t need to know how it’s all going to work out, because you know it will. It will.”
“But first,” said Mary with a small laugh, “Where am I going to have this boy? The guest rooms are full of family, the courtyard’s full of family, the rooftop’s full of family—even the barn is hosting goats and more family! We can’t have a baby with all these relatives and uncles gawking and kids running underfoot!”
“I’ve got an idea!” said Elizabeth. “We’ll kick everyone out of the barn. We’ll clean up a corner of the stable, put down fresh bedding and linen and we’ll do it there! It’s not a palace, that’s for sure! But, there’s got to be about a dozen midwives staying in this house alone! God knew what he was doing, sending Jesus here when we’re having a family reunion—thanks to Rome—in Bethlehem. All these midwives! Don’t you worry, Mary dear, you and the boy will be fine. Just fine.”
“In the City of David… ‘But you Bethlehem, though you are small…’”
“Yes,” agreed Elizabeth, knowing Mary’s thoughts.
A stab of pain shot through Mary. She squeezed John too tightly and he let out a squall.
Mary sat upright, her eyes round as moons.
“You’d better go get that stable ready. Now! I can’t be sure, but I do know I don’t want to have this baby in front of Uncle Hezekiah.”
There’s so much we think we know about Jesus. About his life and family. I read a blog post the other day where a man wrote and ranted all the ways he didn’t want others to take “his jesus” and align him with their politics and religious views. We have no right, really, to take the person of Jesus and manipulate him into our value systems and cultural paradigms. When I ask God to help me have new ideas about his son and this life we can live because of him, sometimes I write fiction. I love writing and the research and the writing process help me become willing to see things through a different lens, hopefully a clearer lens.
All of Jesus’ earthly family was gathered in Bethlehem for this census. Mary and Joseph didn’t go knocking on motel doors because in their culture, there were no inns or motels. An “inn” referred to an extra room for guests. Guests dropped in anytime, as communication during that time was very limited. Chances are, any relatives of Joseph living in Bethlehem were opening their doors to so many family members as the town of Bethlehem (population 2500) quadrupled in size for the census. What a logistical nightmare! And of course, Rome didn’t bother with infrastructure to handle the crowds, the confusion or the violence that may have surrounded this event. Elizabeth and Zechariah were also descendants of David and perhaps crowded into the same cluster of family homes. With all this in mind, and understanding a bit of their relationship from Luke chapter 1, I imagined being very young and very pregnant in an extremely volatile time in history.
I love that you come by and read and share my thoughts and I hope and pray that this blesses you this Christmas.