The story of the birth of the Christ child according to the gospel writer Luke is probably the most familiar passage of the New Testament. The emperor Augustus, who brought peace to the Roman Empire, after years of bloody civil war, ordered a census of his empire just before Jesus was born. He did this so Rome could update its conscription and tax rolls. Jewish men were required to go to the headquarters of their tribe to be counted.
So Joseph packed up Mary, his expectant teen-aged bride, and made the eighty mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestor David. An exhausting trip under any circumstances, this must have been especially difficult for Mary, who was in the late stages of her pregnancy. Bethlehem was crowded when they arrived and remaining accommodations were primitive at best.
Joseph and Mary found a place to stay in a stable at a local roadside inn. The time for Mary to deliver her firstborn child finally came. She gave birth to Jesus, wrapped him in bands of cloth, laid him in a feeding trough for the animals, on a bed of straw to keep him warm through the night.
Long after the events in Bethlehem that we celebrate today, we find ourselves gathered at the manger with Mary, Joseph and the newly born infant. As with all babies, his very existence is a gift. But with this baby, this little one named Jesus, we have glimpsed what lies ahead for him. What do we say to him as we take our place by his manger?
Now the birth of Jesus had been in the works for a very long time. In fact, all of Scripture leading up to the New Testament can be read as God’s preparation for this event. And there was resistance. God’s people, led by Moses in the wilderness, were unruly, complaining and disobedient. They preferred slavery in Egypt to wandering in the desert. Later, kings were repudiated and prophets martyred. But God’s plan prevailed, and now comes the birth event itself.
Luke tells us that the birth of Jesus was a quiet event, attended by a few shepherds and the Holy Family. Slowly, deliberately, God’s plan of salvation begins to unfold. It will not be a smooth road for Jesus but a journey with rocks and deserts along the way, as it is for most of us. But this crib is the starting place, and it teaches us something profound about the nature of God and God’s love for us.
God didn’t choose the way of the powerful to impress or overwhelm us. God didn’t choose to accomplish his plan through the politically powerful or religious authorities. Instead, God chose to change the course of history through the faith of a young peasant girl, Mary. God chose the most compelling strategy possible, being born a human being to lead us back to our creator, the very source of our being. God’s initiative and Mary’s “yes” opened the door to new life in the middle of a wilderness time for the whole world.
Luke wants to be very clear in his narrative: God came and was born among us, quietly, but with every intention of restoring our relationships with God and with one another. This is the miracle, the Good News heralded by the angels on that holy night: “Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The story of Christmas is not just about Jesus’ birth two thousand years ago, but about his birth in the present. The nativity story is the story of Christ being born in us. You see, Christmas happens whenever we let God enter our lives. That’s the real mystery of Christmas.
Today we celebrate when heaven and earth were joined in a new and glorious way when God entered our world to reclaim his people. This is when “the hopes and fears of all the years” are resolved in a stable under a majestic star. So let’s set aside every burden that weighs us down, and simply adore the “wonder of his love.”
The Scripture says that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In this way Mary, always the model disciple, shows us how to take in this holy birth. Mary held in her arms the God of Love, that we might hold in our hearts the love of God.
Today of all days, let us “treasure these things in our hearts.” Let God’s Word fill you with wordless grace, peace and joy. Let Christmas be born in you and through you for others. In the Spirit of Christmas, come every one, “come and let us adore him, Jesus Christ the Lord!”
Resources: Amy Richter, 2011; Ben Hemmer, 2011; Gordon Scruton, 2012; Synthesis, 2014, 2017.