God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable. (Thomas Merton)
[Joseph] went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Luke 2:5-7; context)
We always assume (again because of our Christmas Pageant knowledge of this story) that Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus the first night that she and Joseph came to Bethlehem. This makes sense – surely, someone would have taken them in if they had been hanging around the stables long enough, especially considering Mary was nine months pregnant. Surely, someone would have had compassion on this family!
But the text doesn’t say that Jesus was born that first night. It simply states: “While they were there” in Bethlehem. Could it be that Mary and Joseph were homeless for a few days, a week, a month or more? Could it be that Jesus’ lowly birth in the manger was even lowlier than we think it was? Could it be that Mary’s final weeks of pregnancy were spent looking for shelter when none was to be found?
We romanticize the story of the nativity to our own detriment. The carols and the pageants all speak of a mild mother and animals that are surprised by what they find in their trough. But what if Mary and Joseph discovered the stable only after being out on the street for days or weeks? What if Mary was desperate, not mild? What if her water broke out in the cold of a desert night and Joseph had to hammer the lock off the stable door because the barn was the only warm place he could find? Would Joseph have felt like a failure or, perhaps, a criminal? Would Mary have been nauseated and horrified because she was going to deliver in a room full of animal waste?
But into this desperation, this failure, this nauseating horror, Christ was born. He was healthy. He was warm. He had a roof over his head. And to think that we often dismiss God’s presence when we are desperate. To think that we do not look for Christ in the midst of our failures. We forget that God is with us when horror closes in.
But remember, during all of these things, Christ is born within us.
Dear God, your holy Son took on the full range of humanity that he might redeem all of humankind. Help me to seek him when I am in danger or in doubt or in the dark. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
I leave this moment with you, God, as living vessel for holding the light of your son, as was the manger on that holy night.