This Christmas season I was prepared. I had all kinds of Christmas activities planned out to do with the girls and our students. I had an advent wreath (of sorts) and prayers for each week. I had materials to make a Jesse tree and our own advent calender with a Christmas activity to do each day (yeah, I had a feeling that was going to be a bad idea before I even started).
Then the first of December arrived and I got sick. And the girls got sick. The girls improved, but 3 weeks later I'm still coughing my way through the night and croaking my way through the day. It could be much worse, but I haven’t had a nasty cold drag out this long since I was pregnant (which I’m not, btw). We should have read a Bible story and made an ornament each day for the Jesse tree. It currently has 5 ornaments. The advent calendar is in slightly better shape only because on day 3 I scraped the whole "do an activity each day," and one day we put up 9 pieces.
This Advent hasn't gone quite how I planned. I feel exhausted and stressed, kind of like most people probably feel right about now. Much as I want to slow down and relish the wonder of the season, if we’re honest, this feeling might be closer to how everyone felt at the first Christmas.
That Christmas didn't go how Mary planned either. It was lonely and confusing and inconvenient, and if you've ever been 9 months pregnant, you know she probably felt like crap.
I've been thinking a lot about Mary this year. Much as I love Christmas carols, I can't imagine they do much justice to the real story. There's all this talk of silent nights and a baby who doesn't cry, but have you ever actually been at a birth? I think birth is an incredible, wonderful process, but even in the most peaceful birth setting (i.e. not a stable), it's generally noisy. And messy. And there were no Christmas carols.
Here is Mary, a young girl, having her first baby. She is far from home and has spent the last days of her pregnancy traveling on a donkey. I was too uncomfortable to ride in a car for long by the end of pregnancy - but a donkey! I don't think it's a giant leap to assume she's sore and tired and perhaps silently cursing the emperor for his stupid decrees.
Mary and Joseph finally arrive in Bethlehem only to be greeted by closed doors. In a culture that so valued hospitality, it must have seemed like a slap in the face. Were the people of Bethlehem already maxed-out with census travelers? Did they somehow get wind of the baby's presumably scandalous conception? Among all Joseph's relatives in his hometown, there was really no-one willing to take in their own family member? Did they not want to risk bringing condemnation upon themselves, accepting this not-yet-married couple about to have a child?
Shunned by their relatives, Mary and Joseph are left to give birth in a stable. I think of the comfortable, sterile birth environments we try to create, and then I think of a smelly, dirty stable. No candles or aromatherapy or even hospital cleaner smell; instead, animal poop. No bed that sits up on its own with the press of a button. I know they didn't have those in that day anyway, but I imagine no bed was a step down from whatever Mary was used to.
And perhaps worst of all, Mary is alone. With her new not-quite husband who she probably doesn't know real well. Perhaps a compassionate relative or the local midwife is willing to help out and just isn't mentioned. For Mary's sake, I sure hope so. Even so, here is a young girl without even the support of her mother. Pacing the stable in pain. Moaning and swaying and wondering if she can actually do this.
The time has come, and it probably doesn't feel holy. I'm not sure there was a beam of light coming through the conveniently placed hole in the ceiling. And even if there were, I doubt anyone would notice. Mary, in that "other world," her entire body and mind carried away in the incredible work of pushing a baby into the world. I doubt she's thinking about the angel or this amazing Christmas miracle. This baby may have been the Messiah, but that didn't make transition any less intense.
Joseph...I mean, what is Joseph thinking? He's probably scared out of his mind. This isn't the day of husband-as-labor-coach. There were no birth classes or books or videos to prepare him for what to expect. He had probably been kept far away from the birthing process in the past, and suddenly he is thrown into the center of it. He's never even slept with Mary, and here he is getting really intimate with her in a way he would have preferred to avoid. Kevin said he was a little traumatized by watching the pain and difficulty of my first birth, and that was after the classes. Poor Joseph.
I think there was probably some screaming. The little halos magically floating over everyone's heads are doubtful, but there was definitely sweat. And blood. Baby Jesus had a placenta. Let's just pause to think about this aspect of Jesus' humanity, which also had to be birthed. When Mary saw that baby Savior for the first time, he was red and wrinkly and covered in just-born gunkiness. He might have pooped all over Mary.
I imagine Mary lying back in the straw, shaking from exhaustion. She looks into the face of her messy, wailing baby and marvels at his birth. She feels relief and terror and a rush of crazy postpartum hormones. Joseph looks on in amazement, overwhelmed by a flood of protectiveness for this baby that's not even his own. And still kinda scared out of his mind.
And let me tell you, there was crying. That whole "Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes" - what, was he sick or something? (Or is crying supposed to be sinful for a baby? I've got big problems with that!) This is a newborn we're talking about. And since those stupid lowing cattle just woke up the baby, Mary is probably crying too.
Then the shepherds show up. I know this is amazing and the angel told them to come, but I don't remember an angel notifying Mary of these unexpected visitors. She's just had a baby. She is exhausted and overwhelmed. She is dirty. She is bleeding. Who knows when she slept last. She's pretty much a mess.
She is trying to figure out how to nurse this tiny baby. The culture was probably not quite so freaked out about breastfeeding as ours, but I still doubt she is excited to practice with an audience of strange men. Breastfeeding a newborn takes a lot of concentration, and it's practically impossible to do discreetly.
But here come these shepherds. Dirty, smelly shepherds and they're wanting a look at her just-born baby. Maybe they even want to touch him. I imagine they're a little bit awkward. Visiting a newborn baby, much less a stranger's baby, was probably way out of protocol. I'm glad they told Mary and Joseph about the awesome angel display and all the "Glory to God"s. They probably could have used a reminder of holiness.
The shepherds leave and Mary settles back to ponder what has just happened. She thinks of the pain and the pushing. She thinks of the wonder of that first cry. And now, she remembers the angel who came to her a lifetime ago. Thinks of the angels and the shepherds, and can these events get any more bizarre? She holds her baby and tries to comprehend how the world has just changed. She gazes into the eyes of the helpless baby Messiah, and she catches a glimmer of messy glory.