When I was expecting our first child, it occurred to me – on a new level – that Jesus’ birth took place in the most humble of surroundings. In February of 1987, I was decorating a tiny nursery at Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, with a dresser, a crib, and a rocking chair. Little outfits were washed and stored away, plenty of diapers had been purchased and tucked away in the closet, and I’d taken Lamaze classes and read about breastfeeding so I’d be as ready as possible for our little one. I was within minutes of the hospital, where I’d give birth to my firstborn in a warm, well-equipped room surrounded by nurses, an obstetrician, and an anesthesiologist. This last staff member happened to be our next-door neighbor, who called home throughout my labor and delivery to report on my progress to his wife, who then relayed the news to our other neighbors!
That Christmas, I compared my preparations for our newborn with those of Mary and Joseph. Surely, Mary knew about nourishing her child – that would have been something she’d have learned about by being around other newborns and new mothers. She would have also been accustomed to birthing, if only from the animals around her home. I think, though, that experienced mothers in her life would have helped prepare her for childbirth. Prior to their journey to Bethlehem, had Mary tucked tiny little outfits, blankets, and soft rolls of cloth in a bag? I think she must’ve known her time was near and would have wanted to be as prepared for her newborn as possible. I wonder if she was a bit worried, with the prospect of being far from home and away from friends and family who could help with her labor and delivery. It must have been disheartening, too, seeking shelter in a town bursting with visitors. Over and over, Joseph sought a place to stay in Bethlehem – any place – and was repeatedly turned down. How long was Mary in labor as she and Joseph searched for a room? Fatigue from worry and the strain of travel must have been wearing them down.
After being turned away from one inn after another, and after enduring labor pains while riding a donkey, the humble stable finally offered to Joseph and Mary must have looked so inviting. At last, Mary could ease off the donkey’s back and lie down, resting in the straw. Joseph could kneel beside her, comforting Mary as her contractions became more intense. Imagine the earthiness of this stable for a moment – dust and cobwebs, cow “pies” and donkey droppings to sidestep, a dirt floor covered with straw, the smells of the animals present, gentle munching sounds as hay and grain were eaten, soft calls of the stable’s occupants, and the warmth those creatures must have added to the stable. This is the place our Savior was born in. Was Joseph able to make a bed of clean straw for his laboring wife? Did he heat the well water to clean Jesus and his mother? Giving birth in a stable is nothing any one of us would aspire to. Christmas carols sanitize the event – “Away in a Manger” never mentioned the possibility of splintered wood, wobbly legs, or dusty, prickly straw. Things we take for granted now were not so simple for the Holy Family.
The first visitors to the newborn King were humble, too, simple shepherds alerted to Jesus’ birth by heavenly angels. I like to think that Mary and Joseph were delighted by these visitors, who told the new parents how they’d learned of their son’s birth. Being simple country folks, the shepherds carried some food and water with them, and they probably offered to share what they had with Mary and Joseph. If there were older shepherds in the group, they most likely gazed upon the infant Jesus with admiration and approval, congratulating the new parents on their new son. I think these older men would’ve clapped Joseph on his back, perhaps embrace him, and assure him he did a fine job bringing his son into the world. And all these things Mary would remember, would treasure in her heart.
As Christmas draws near, I want to create as warm and as welcoming a place in my heart as I possibly can for Jesus. I want my heart to be filled with gratitude for the many blessings he’s provided me, with abiding love for the cherished friends and family in my life, and with a deep desire to do what Jesus would have me do, not what I would have me do. Jesus asked his disciples to share God’s love with the world, to be a little beacon of God’s light for all.
Mary and Joseph would have gladly stopped where a little flame from a candle or oil lamp beckoned them to rest. Please, God, let me be a little flame of your love in my little part of the world.