Finally. We’re at the birth of Jesus. This story has been so mythologized over time that sometimes it’s hard to know what’s actually in the Scriptures and what’s not. Because of this, I think it’s good to slow the reading down and break it into parts. This kind of slow reading also helps us look at what is actually in the Bible versus elements of the story that we think are part of the story but may actually just be folk lore or from Christmas carols. The ultimate example is the “three kings.” This comes from Matthew, but in Matthew there were no kings. They were “magi” or “wisemen”, and it’s highly unlikely that there were three (although there were three gifts). There was probably around 50 or more of them. Songs like “We Three Kings” and others can easily give us a picture of the birth of Christ that is not necessarily bad, but also not scriptural. So it’s good to slow down the reading, take it piece by piece and take a good look at this story that we think we know so well. That being said, it is also good to read it imaginatively like many of our carols do. So as we dig into the birth narrative, slow it down and notice how Luke tells it, but then also begin to imagine the story and fill in the gaps. Finally, let the story speak to you. What captivates your imagination in it? What brings you to wonder?
I realized this year I always place Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem because of some Holy Spirit motivation leading them to the prophesied town in which Jesus is supposed to be born (Bethlehem). I forget that they actually had no intent of ever taking this journey. Caesar is why they go, and only why they go. The way the story ends has this gentle, poignant flavor to it, as Jesus is “wrapped in bands of cloth” and “laid in a manger”, but the more I imagine this story, I see what must have been an exhausted, scared, stressed, and potentially even angry couple. Politics is the reason they had to take this long hard journey. This is no quick 20 minute drive to the government center to renew their driver’s licenses. It’s a week to ten day journey over hard and dangerous terrain. And then when they arrive, there’s no room- nowhere to deliver the child. I think I would be in the “I can’t buy a break” mode. Dear Lord, could something just go right with this thing? What are you doing to us, God? Why is this so hard?
I am struck by Mary and Joseph’s strength. They were willing servants, but I don’t think they could have known just how hard the service would be. Bringing Christ into the world isn’t easy. This is hard work. When we consecrate communion in the United Methodist Church, our liturgy says, “may these elements be for us the body of blood of Christ, that we may be the body of Christ for the world.” I wonder if one of the things God is doing in the birth narrative is showing us that being Christ in the world is hard work. It doesn’t happen over night, it’s a long journey, and the world may not have room. But, like Mary and Joseph, we must not give up. We continue to do the hard work, and find the places where we can lay the body of Christ. It may not be in palaces and cathedrals. It may just be in the grunge of a feeding trough. That is, the places in the world that will actually receive Christ, may be the uncomfortable places, the messy places, the places we often don’t want to go. The question is, are we ok with that?