As soon as the stores started decorating for Christmas I knew I was in trouble. Christmas used to fill me with such delight because of all the joyful festivities centered around celebrating the advent of Christ and family love. The colored lights, hope filled music, delicious meals, joyful giving and receiving of gifts, quiet times of reflection, congregational worship, reaching out to the needy, and special times gathering together with family and friends—I thrilled to every moment of it.
Christmas used to fill me with such delight.
But not anymore. Now the Christmas season is an unavoidable reminder of great pain, sorrow, and loss.
From the statistics I’ve heard this is true for many people at this time of year. Maybe you are one of those who, like me, wonder how you are going to survive this agonizing season. As I was crying out to the Lord about this He gave me comfort by inviting me to enter into the first Christmas in a new way. To step into the lives of Mary and Joseph and try to truly understand how the birth of Christ may have affected them. As I did this, I began to realize how much pain and sorrow was actually a part of the Christmas story. I wonder if the following may have been true. . .
- Who were Mary and Joseph?—When I picture Mary I visualize a lovely young woman full of purity, virtue, and love. The ideal Jewish girl. Surely she was well known in her community for these attributes and respected and loved by many, if not all. Joseph also has been described in Scripture as a godly man who would have had a standing of respect in the community. I picture Mary to have been like any woman engaged to be married, full of dreams and joyful expectations. She must have expected to be married in a celebration involving the whole community with the love and well wishes of friends and family. She may have spent hours in her mind envisioning the house Joseph would make for the two of them and all the ways she would make it their own special home. As she thought about being pregnant with their first baby she probably expected the birth to take place in this wonderful little home and to be surrounded by the loving support of midwife, mother, sisters, and maybe female friends, each doing all they could to help her through the birth and welcome the new little one. Then, when the baby arrived, there would be joyful congratulations and blessings, and maybe gifts, with the whole community enfolding this new member in a loving way. Mary’s expectations were realistic. They were what probably almost every woman she knew had experienced. And then the angel came. . .
- News of the pregnancy–Who do you think believed Mary when she told them she was supernaturally pregnant? Only Elizabeth and Joseph, as far as we know. Not even Joseph believed at first. In fact, the news of her pregnancy was so scandalous that the community may have threatened to stone her for adultery because betrothal at that time was as serious as marriage. The angel’s visit to Joseph telling him to continue with the marriage plans may have saved Mary’s life but it probably destroyed his reputation, and his business. Now people assumed that the coming baby was his, maybe even a rape baby! Can you picture the village women gossiping over their fences with each other: “Have you heard the news? Not only is our little Mary pregnant out of wedlock, the little slut, but Joseph is still planning on marrying her! And we thought she was such a nice girl. There’s only one reason a man would want to marry her now—Joseph must be the father of the child. How could he do such a thing, the pervert! All this business about an angel appearing—posh! Just a desperate attempt to cover up their sin. They are a terrible example to the young people in this community. I’m not giving Joseph anymore of my business, I tell you what, and I wouldn’t be caught dead going to the well with a girl like Mary!” Does that conversation sound too far fetched? Maybe it is. But it seems to line up with what happened next in the Christmas narrative . . .
- Travelling to Bethlehem—Have you ever noticed that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem alone? Why was that? The census required everyone to register and that would have included at least all the male representatives of Mary’s and Joseph’s families as well as the families in Nazareth. When Jesus was twelve we see Mary and Joseph travelling in a caravan of relatives to Jerusalem in order to celebrate a festival but now we see them travelling alone and, of all poorly planned things, to be making the trip during Mary’s due date! Certainly the registration for the census was conducted over a period of time, probably months, so that it was possible for everyone to actually travel to their home towns. So why did Joseph and Mary wait until the last moment? It also appears they were still in Bethlehem two years or so later when the Wise Men visited. Why didn’t they return to Nazareth after they registered like everyone else did?
I could be wrong, but it looks to me like they left Nazareth packed to move, never intending to go back. What would cause a poor young couple at that time to do such a drastic thing? My guess is that they couldn’t bear the rejection and shunning of their “godly” community any longer. Perhaps their lives were even threatened, as is very possible in an orthodox community. Maybe there came a point of desperation when Joseph realized that he would never now get the business he needed to support a family and they had to relocate and start over. Obviously, they waited, as anyone does when faced with the shock of injustice and persecution, until there were no other options but to flee. They had to sneak out after the others had gone and make their own way to Bethlehem. How painful it is to realize that those who have known and loved, and with good cause, have respected you all your life have now, at one word of gossip and false accusation, turned on you and are doing all they can to destroy you! How shocking to see this side of people; you just refuse to believe it for a long time. People, in general, will always believe the worst and never understand what God has told you. Joseph and Mary learned this the hard way.
For Mary and Joseph the birth of Christ was not about the family closeness that they had always had or hoped for it was about rejection and loneliness as they submitted to God’s plan in their lives. How many times did Mary think, “Life wasn’t supposed to be like this! Following God wasn’t supposed to cost so much! I was supposed to be blessed for living a righteous life, not experiencing so much suffering, and, from the ones I loved! Where is God???”
- The birth of Christ—My guess is that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem hoping they had at least a few more days to get settled somewhere before the baby came, maybe even move in with Elizabeth and Zacharias. I picture her having the first strong contraction and thinking, “No! Not now! This can’t be happening now!” But it was, and it did. What did she think when Joseph came back, weary and discouraged, and told her that he had searched everywhere and there was only a stable available for them to stay. Did she wonder about God’s seeming lack of provision? Who helped her with the delivery? Was Joseph able to round up a midwife or was he the only one present? Oh, this was not how she had pictured her first birth experience to be! And yet, God was indeed there with her, with them, in the midst of the rejection, loss, questions, darkness, poor accommodations, and smell. And, Jesus’ birth still needed to be celebrated. But who could the angels tell?
- The angel’s announcement—Because of the census and the crowds of people, that first Christmas must have been an awful lot like the way Christmas is celebrated around the world today: streets crowded with people, merchants hawking their wares, terrible traffic, overspending, long lines, cranky children tired of waiting, over busy and cranky adults tired of, well, everything. The angels were bursting with wonderful news to tell but who would listen? Would the people of Bethlehem? No, they were too stressed, too tired, too preoccupied (like so many of us today!), to really embrace an angelic message. How about the royal family? Surely the angels had news fit for a king! Definitely NOT Herod’s family! That family was notorious for killing anyone who threatened their position. Surely the priests and religious leadership would welcome the news about the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately, not them either. These people would later be the very ones who made sure Christ was crucified. Mary and Joseph’s families? No. They only thought of Jesus as an embarrassing bastard. Who then? Humanity must know!
Ah, shepherds watching their flocks in the fields. Here were men who spent a lot of time reflecting on God’s creation and maybe even on God Himself. Historically we know that shepherds were not well regarded. These were men who were already so despised by their community they wouldn’t be afraid of what would happen to their reputations if they spread God’s message of good news. Here were men, too, who could probably care less that this baby came to unwed parents and would welcome and love Him/them anyway. Funny how in times of great loss God provides encouragement from people you would least expect. Strange who turns out to have real love and who should, but doesn’t. And so it was that the angels went to the shepherds. . .
- What is Christmas? Well, of course, it is many things to different people. In essence, it is remembering the mercy and love of God. I have noticed that the first Christmas was full of surprises—angelic visitations to several people, astonishing and wonderful news, family rejection instead of love, unplanned out of town trips/moves, unplanned births, miraculous provision, unexpected visitors, and even God using irritating directives of a wicked government (i.e. a census) to accomplish His purposes. Does God see and care about our pain at Christmas? Is what we are experiencing really that much different than what those involved in the first Christmas experienced? God has encouraged me through the stories of Mary and Joseph that He does indeed care about my pain. That’s why Jesus came. Not to judge me, but to save me. In spite of my pain can I dare to believe that God has a surprise of love for me this Christmas? Can you?