It doesn’t start off sounding like a particularly special or noteworthy story—“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.” No warning that this story is THE story, just information, a setting, a time and a place. A map, if you will, of the various pieces and parts that make up the landscape of this particular tale. No warning that this story, of nothing notably “God-centered,” but rather a political requirement for registration, one likely to result in a greater tax burden for the people, is the context into which God breaks into the world.
And yet, here we are, listening to this tale of God’s working in a decidedly political world. Of a man and woman, Joseph and Mary, who are compelled to travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, a trip somewhere on the scale of 100 miles. A trip made more dangerous because it required that they detour Samaria, a country with tense relations to Israel at the time, all in order to fulfill the requirements of a foreign occupying state during the final term of an unplanned pregnancy.
To take this trip must have been a frightening prospect in the final weeks leading up to Christ’s birth. I wonder how Mary must have felt, knowing that her child might very well decide to be born during a journey far from the safety of home and family. How scared she must have been to realize that her time had come in a foreign town where her and Joseph were strangers. To realize they had no friends, no familiar faces to help them in the uncharted territory of this new birth.
What courage it must have taken to persevere through the realities of a birth that the Scriptures describe in all of two verses—“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” To be so desperate to protect their young child that Scripture tells us they welcomed their first child in the darkness amidst barn animals.
How alone they must have felt in those hours, fearing the immanency of parenthood coupled with the knowledge of this child’s Otherness. The expectation of how drastically their lives would change with this life. To wonder if they would ever find welcome in such extraordinary circumstances.
And as they experienced these fears, these questions, the reality of Christ’s birth, Scripture tells us that God was working to provide them welcome and hospitality in this strange and foreign place. The angels of the Lord, who came to Mary and to Joseph, come to strangers in a field, proclaim the birth of Christ much as the birth of Kings was proclaimed in that time, but in the upside-down Kingdom of God these words are proclaimed not to nobles and dignitaries, but to shepherds at work in the field, shepherds whom we are told drop everything, leave their flocks in the fields and go “with haste” to find the family, to see what God has done in the world and to offer hospitality and welcome company in the midst of all that has happened.
Much is silent in this story—the details are left unsaid. But at the end we know one thing, and that is this: That ultimately, this is a story of gratitude and joy—the gratitude of Mary and Joseph when ONE PERSON was found who was willing to make room for them to welcome their child, their gratitude to be in a warm and safe space in those vulnerable and scary moments of new birth and new parenthood, joyful gratitude to God when their child arrives safely into this world, for a manger in which to lie his head. Gratitude for the strength to persevere through the fear and unknowing, for strangers, shepherds who come seeking to welcome them and offer hospitality in a strange town. Mary and Josephs’ gratitude that the improbable truth of their Son’s origin is known of and marveled at by others. And the gratitude and joyful amazement of the nameless angels on this earth—the shepherds and other lowly, ordinary people, who find themselves welcomed into God’s presence by no less than God’s messengers and a holy family.
And it is a story of our gratitude, as well.
Our gratitude Christ is born in Bethlehem, that he was born in the midst of love and thanksgiving, that angels sang and shepherds rejoiced, that light conquered the darkness of those moments, that we too can add our voices to the song as we proclaim, “Christ is born!” in this season and in this place. That we are welcomed to Mary’s side to behold the Child of God, and that this child is for all of humankind. Gratitude, that this tiny, new child will one day grow up and change everything, will change us, if we would but make room for him to do so. That on this silent, holy, and strange night, “Christ, our savior is born.”
May we, as did the nameless innkeepers and shepherds, Mary and Josephs, make room for this child, this savior, to change our lives this Christmas season. Amen.