Tragic events over the past couple of weeks have saddened and bewildered all Australians. For a variety of other reasons, this Christmas season will be a painful or difficult time for many people.
Perhaps the first Christmas was not all that different. Below is another version of the old familiar Christmas story.
The story of the first Christmas (roughly adapted from the Gospel of St Luke)
There’s a man, Joseph, who lives in the Middle East with his countrymen under the oppressive rule of a Roman conqueror. He has a young wife whose name is Mary. He also has a very heavy heart.
Mary is pregnant, and Joseph knows the baby is not his. His turmoil and indecision probably can’t get much worse. He thinks about divorcing her quietly to avoid scandal. However, he doesn’t want to act too hastily in his confusion. Instead, he meditates and prays about his problem and then has second thoughts. He still doesn’t fully understand what is happening. But he’s a good man and knows he must protect his young wife and her child.
To make matters worse, the Roman emperor decrees that everyone ‘in the world’ should be counted. The bureaucrats order a census. To make it easier for themselves, they’ve decided everyone (read, every man) has to register in the town where he was born. Women are considered little more than chattels. They must go with their husbands.
Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth where Joseph has a job. But he was born in Bethlehem, close to Jerusalem – a long way from Nazareth. The shortest way to get there is to walk 115 kilometres across difficult, hilly terrain. But that way is also dangerous because bandits are known waylay and harm strangers. Joseph doesn’t have much choice. They have to go the long way round, even if they must walk an extra 30 kilometres.
They take a week, perhaps more, to travel between the towns. Sometimes, Mary rests on a donkey, but that is not comfortable for long. They are very relieved when they arrive in the little town of Bethlehem. They’ve travelled every day and probably slept rough each night. Mary is bone-weary. Her feet are sore where her sandals have rubbed. Her muscles ache and her abdomen is heavy with the weight of the child. .
Their relief is short-lived. Bethlehem is bustling with the influx of visitors who have come from everywhere for the census. All available accommodation is booked out. Joseph knows he has to find somewhere for Mary to rest. Someone says there’s a stable down the road. It’s not much more than a cave, not what he hoped for, but it’s better than sleeping on the side of the road. At least there’s a roof over their heads, even if is dark and smelly inside and they have to share the space with animals.
Things could not look worse for the couple.
But that night, the Baby is born. There’s no midwife, no clean sheets and no fresh running water. Mary wraps her Child in the hand-made swaddling clothes she’s brought from home. She’s exhausted and needs rest, so she puts the Child carefully into the manger. The animals may have slobbered in it as they ate, but it’s cleaner there than the rest of the stable.
The townspeople and visitors are all too busy with their own affairs to check on the young mother and baby. Late at night, some shepherds come to the stable.
Earlier in the evening, they were guarding their sheep in nearby paddocks when an angel appeared.
‘Don’t be afraid. I bring you news of great joy,’ the angel said. ‘A Saviour has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.’
Then the shepherds heard a heavenly choir singing, ‘Glory to God,’ and ‘Peace to people who enjoy His favour.’
When they discover everything in the stable is as the angel said, they go out to tell everyone who will listen, and give praise to God for the miracle they’ have witnessed.
For Christians, the miracle of Christmas is that Jesus, the Son of God, can be found in the most unexpected places. He is found among the poor and marginalised. He is found where there is pain and suffering. He is found in our imperfect world.
As Father Robert Barron says,
‘The good news of Christmas is that God himself pushed into the dysfunctional and ambiguous family of man. And he continues to join us, even though we, like so many of his Israelite ancestors, are unworthy of him. Like them, we are flawed, compromised, half-finished. But he becomes our brother anyway. That’s the amazing grace of the Incarnation.’
May the mystery of this Christmas season permeate our lives with peace and joy.