So this is what I’ve been pondering this Christmas season. My understanding of Jesus’ times on earth was that life revolved around the family, the extended family. Everyone lived close by, aunts, uncles, cousins, generations all together. The family took care of one another.
My other observation as I read the Christmas account was that all people had to travel to their father’s birthplace to counted for the census. Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because Joseph was from the family line of David. So here’s where my pondering starts, didn’t everyone from Joseph’s family line travel to Bethlehem too?
In all the retellings of this story Mary and Joseph are always traveling the long road to Bethlehem by themselves, all out there alone for the thousands of miles trek. But I’m wondering if they were really alone? What about the extended family, the in-laws, aunts, uncles, and cousins that would have been traveling too? Wouldn’t they have been all together?
Then they actually make it to Bethlehem and there’s no room for them to stay because of the thousands of out of town folks also there for the census. Again, the pictures all show Joseph and Mary knocking door to door by themselves. After they find the stable to stay in, Mary gives birth by herself with only her husband and the animals present.
Here’s where I’ve been wondering more again. My understanding of Jewish custom was that males would not have been present for birthing for fear of making themselves unclean. Birthing was woman’s work and the new mother would have been surrounded by all those extended female family members to be with her, coaching and attending to her every need. I’m speculating here again but I’m beginning to wonder if Joseph wasn’t really there for this holy night, or at least not right there beside his wife and that they weren’t just left off on their own but were surrounded by the love of community and family to welcome their holy child.
How much of our understanding of the Christmas story has been shaped by our culture today and our lack of knowledge and understanding of the culture then? (Even my own ponderings above are probably skewed because of the lenses I looked through). The Scripture passages that give us an account of the story don’t give many details and where there is ambiguity we’ve painted our own details. I’ve noticed this specifically in all the children’s book retellings. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus have a smile on their face. The stable is tidy and the animals are silently looking on. It all has a rosy glow to it. I’ve given birth three times, nothing about it is tidy and glowing. Though I believe if need be my husband and I alone could have gotten the job done, I know we’re both thankful for the team, the community around us that helped us usher in our children to the world.
How much of a disservice do we do ourselves and the world by making God’s coming to the world look so unnatural? Granted God coming down to be with us is quite extraordinary but by making it something uncommon to how we live our everyday lives we make God someone we hold at a distance from the very beginning of his coming. Part of God’s goal was to make himself like one of us so we could know deep within us that he understood who we are and what we face because he faced the same during his time on earth. If his birth was different than ours than that sets us up to believe that his whole time on earth was always more divine than human and therefore unrelatable. We would always keep God at a distance when the gift of Christmas is that we can bring God close because he had come close.
I have always been drawn to the humanness of Jesus. God tangibly in a form here on Earth makes me feel at peace. I imagine him as a child, learning to walk and stumbling and falling down, and later when he’s older playing with his friends. I imagine him growing into a teenager faced with possibilities of growing up, taking up his father’s trade, what thoughts ran through his mind? When he walked and worked in the hot sun he got stinky, he felt hunger, he fell down and cut open his knee and bled. He felt our emotions too, sadness over the death of a friend, perhaps loneliness, but joy and excitement over celebrations and thankfulness at the richness of everyday life. I want to put my faith in a God who is real. He needs to be holy, set apart and big enough to create everything, hold it all together, love it all. But I also must be able to grasp him, to hold onto him in order to feel the safety of his being so I can walk with courage into the vastness of who he his.
At Christmas time I can feel both. God slipped into this world both humbly and humanly, as an infant surrounded by the love of community, his mother and father, crying out for his first breath of earthly air, just like us. But he also came in all his splendor and mystery that is God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, announced by angels and set apart from the very beginning as God’s own Son. Yes, the gift of Christmas is that we can have a God who is both/and, not just either/or and that makes him real, and to me, a God worth pursuing with my whole being.