Most Christians are familiar with the Christmas story. Every year on December 25th, Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, and listen to the tale of how Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, how they could find no lodging for the night so had to make do with the stable; how the baby Jesus was born and celebrated by angels who announced his birth to nearby shepherds who visited him. (Luke 2:1-20) Some include the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) in the story; others celebrate the visit of the Magi on twelfth night or twelve days after Christmas.
The central mystery of this story is how God could even want to become a human being and live and walk with us as a normal, everyday person with all the trials associated with being human. He was willing to come as a helpless infant rather than as a triumphant kingly presence. The eternal God wanted to experience humanity from its beginnings, as a fertilized ovum, to a brutal and seemingly senseless death. He lived most of his life in obscurity until he burst on the scene at his baptism (Matt 3:13-16, Mk 1:9-12, Lk 3:21-22). Judging from some of the comments made in Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-57, Mark 6:1-6), no one saw him as special or out of the ordinary. He was just a neighborhood boy who grew up to be famous.
Imagine yourself writing the script for a movie. Where would you begin? Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem while Mary was in the last uncomfortable stages of her pregnancy. Did they walk or did Joseph find a donkey for Mary to ride? They must have joined with a caravan traveling to Jerusalem and then found another group traveling further to Bethlehem. How long did the trip take? We can assume it took several days at least. Did they travel all day, only stopping at nightfall, or did they stop during the day as well?
When they arrived in Bethlehem, they needed to find lodging. Imagine Joseph’s frantic search for a place to stay as Mary starts labor pains. Bethlehem is crowded and others have found lodging before them. Someone takes pity on them and offers them the stable yard. We can imagine a cave-like place where the animals are housed, out of the wind and protected from rain. Here Mary and Joseph try to find a comfortable place for the night. This is the place where Mary gives birth to Jesus.
Was Joseph able to find a local midwife to help Mary or was he left alone with his wife to help out as best he could? Did Mary have to give birth to her baby alone and with no help? We are not told whether Mary’s labor was long or short, whether it was painful or pain free. We are not told who cut the cord or with what instrument. Some believe Mary’s birth process was pain free and very short while others believe it was a normal birth in every way. Who cleaned up the newborn when he arrived and what was the custom for cleaning a newborn in those days? Was he roughly toweled dry or did Joseph find some water to bathe him? He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. Mary had to have brought the swaddling clothes with her. Did she sew them herself? What kind of material was used? How long was the cloth? Tightly wrapping the baby Jesus must have given him warmth as well as a sense of security. We imagine he falls promptly asleep. Did Mary nurse him first?
In the meanwhile (Luke 2:8-20), angels are singing praise to God, and telling shepherds the good news of what has happened. The shepherds, as good Jews, knew of the coming of the Messiah. They set off to see a king. What did they expect to find? How shocking it must have been for them to find Mary and Joseph in a cow-shed. Is this the place where we will find the Messiah, they wonder? Yet, we are told they stayed to admire the baby. They accepted, on faith, that this baby was indeed the Messiah, the savior of the Jews. How they must have laughed and rejoiced as they left to tell the news to everyone they met.
The reflection can end here or the scene can shift to the story of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12). Whether the magi were stargazers or astrologers or magicians is not really important to the meditation. Matthew tells us that they first stopped at Herod’s palace to find out where the “newborn king” could be located. After all, kings are supposed to be in palaces, not in stables. Imagine Herod’s consternation at hearing about the birth of a contender to his throne! He must have been shocked as well as threatened. He was obviously a skilled politician; however, as he sent the magi away with assurances that he was pleased with the news and wished to pay homage to the baby himself.
The star reappeared as they left Jerusalem and we are told they easily found the “house” where Mary and the baby Jesus were staying. Had they moved out of the stable? The magi left gifts for the baby and began their return journey. Once more, divine intervention protects Jesus by telling the magi not to return to Herod.
How many months had the magi been on the road, following the star? Where did they come from? Where did they go after their visit? Some have imagined the magi as kings and very wealthy men. Others have depicted them as coming from different cultures and racial groups. None of this information is in Matthew. Is it imagination or does it have a different source than the Bible? The Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (16) gives many details about the magi left out of Matthew’s account, beginning with the sentence “And when the second year was past, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem, bringing great gifts.” This statement would tend to change our view that they arrived twelve days after the birth of Christ. These stories have become part of Christian folk lore.
The reflection is over although, in a sense, it is not over. There is more to reflect upon. Does the story include Jesus circumcision eight days after his birth? We are told Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. Since Mary could not leave the house for forty days after giving birth, according to Jewish law, where did they stay all that time? Did they have relatives in Bethlehem who gave them a home? Did the stop in Jerusalem on their way home to Nazareth? Or did they pause in their journey to stay in Jerusalem a little longer? We are left with many gaps in the Christmas story, many questions.
The wonder of the Christmas story remains. God became human for our sake. It is the greatest gift we could receive. It is a gift that fills us with wonder.