Christmas in Our Imaginations

Andy Wade

I wonder what it was really like, that day the Prince of Peace was born? Mary and Joseph must have been churning with emotion. As new parents, there would have been joy and amazement as this delicate child emerged from the womb and gave out his first cry.

In the back of their minds though, what must they have been thinking? They had received those strange messages from God about this baby, and Joseph knew he was not the natural father. I imagine their joy was mixed with large portions of wonder, fear, anticipation, and confusion. How could they begin to take it all in?

Then the shepherds arrived with their unbelievable story about a host of angels announcing to them the birth of Mary and Joseph’s little child. Mary “pondered” all these things in her heart. What a tame word for all the swirling emotions she must have been experiencing!

We all have images of these events in our minds. From years of stories, Christmas pageants, and carols, our ideas of Jesus’ birth have been shaped. We have images of “three kings” journeying from the east to worship the newborn King of the Jews, yet the number of Magi is never mentioned. Similarly our minds may conjure images of Mary and Joseph turned away from some kind of local hotel, finding shelter in a barn or a cave with the animals.

But the words used to describe the “inn” actually refer to a kind of upper family room, a guest room, that was already full, so they had to stay in the lower part of the home where the animals were brought in during the evening. It’s highly unlikely that they were alone in the room. Mary was almost certainly attended to by various female family members as she gave birth. (For more see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E. Bailey.)

The power of story can shape our understanding of the birth of Jesus. More often than not these pretty stories downplay the radical nature of what God was up to in this miraculous birth.

We know the shepherds were there, welcomed into the room with Jesus. We’ve heard how radical it was for these shepherds to be present, to be the first to hear the Good News. But I also wonder what it must have been like for Joseph’s extended family. They also were required to journey to Bethlehem for the census.

  • What must have been going through their minds?
  • Was this all still a disgrace for the family, or had they somehow reconciled themselves to the scandal?
  • Were Mary and Joseph staying with family there, or had they been shunned?
  • If you were one of the extended family there for the census, how would you get your head around the news from the shepherds? Could you accept it?

We don’t know the answers to these questions; all we can do is guess. We don’t even know if Joseph’s parents were still alive. But what if they were? Can you imagine what it would be like to be Joseph’s father in this situation? What would you be feeling if you were Joseph’s mother? Was the scandal made more palatable because their social status was already rather low? Did they hold onto family, in spite of the embarrassment, embracing this child as one of their own?

I wonder…

Was this Jesus’ first act of reconciliation, of “drawing all things to himself”, to bring this family which had been fractured by scandal, back together? Or was this instead part of the fulfillment of Jesus’ more difficult words:

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Luke 12:51-53

With Mary, I ponder.

Filled with wonder and awe, with anticipation tinged with confusion, I ponder.

As we live into our faith as best we can, the flaws in our own assumptions are revealed. We wrestle, knowing in whom we trust, in whom we believe, yet also aware how often this same faith, “as through a glass darkly”, has manifested with both love and hate, reconciliation and division, hope and despair.

Even as we celebrate Emmanuel, God-with-us, we’re stuck admitting we don’t have all the answers, and some of the “answers” we have are more problematic than helpful. Yet we continue to believe,

to wrestle,

to hope,

to sit in wonder, and ponder all these things in our hearts.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6