In the beautiful Christmas carol “Silent Night” we sing these words about the first Christmas: “All was calm, all was bright.” But the truth was: All was NOT calm. All was NOT bright. For Mary and Joseph, the first Christmas was filled with anxiety and ambiguity.
First of all, consider the conception of Jesus. Was there ever a more unplanned pregnancy? Mary’s pregnancy threatened to put a permanent wedge between her and her fiancé, Joseph. After all, he knew the child was not his. As he tossed and turned at night trying to decide what to do—have Mary publicly stoned for infidelity or divorce her quietly—an angel broke into his turmoil and gave him a third option: marry her and claim the child as his own. This he did. Like Mary and Joseph, we too experience considerable distress at times while trying to decide the right thing to do. Like them, we too are asked sometimes to alter our carefully-made plans in favor of God’s confusing and challenging designs.
Then there’s the trip to Bethlehem. Mary, nine months pregnant, had every right to be upset. Caesar’s decree came at precisely the wrong time for the young couple. We don’t know what their thoughts were as they made the long trek to Bethlehem. The truth is Mary and Joseph probably had little choice in the matter, for they were at the mercy of forces greater than they were. Their only choice was how they would accept this terrible inconvenience, while trusting that God was still with them. Sometimes we have little choice in situations beyond our control too–except the spirit in which we accept the inevitable.
And then there’s the, “Sorry, we have no room in the inn.” Poor Mary! And poor Joseph! How totally incompetent he must have felt. How scared he must have been. After all, this was his first baby too. Eventually he finds them a place—a stable. This was a real stable—with smelly animals and real manure–not a stable you’d see on HGTV. The place of Jesus’ birth was far from ideal–but life seldom presents us with ideal circumstances either.
And soon after the birth, an angel tells Joseph to grab Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt, because some maniacal king was killing all the male babies in the area. What did this mean for Mary to flee into a foreign country, leaving parents and family just when she needed them the most? And how did she and Joseph feel in a country where they didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t know the customs? Only those who have been refugees or immigrants can fully appreciate how difficult this time must have been for them.
It is easy to romanticize the story of the first Christmas. We can also idealize Mary and Joseph, saying they were saints and therefore very different from us. But the truth is Mary and Joseph were very much like us as they, with great faith in God, negotiated the very real challenges and ambiguities of their lives. Perhaps our prayer this Christmas could be: “Mary and Joseph, you who are so much like us, help us to become more like you.”