Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The First Christmas

Spending the night in the airport coming home got me to thinking about travel at Christmastime. It wasn't comfortable, but I'll bet the first-ever Christmas journey was a lot less posh.

We tend to have a funny portrayal of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. Mary is always a sweet young woman of about twenty with perfect teeth and shiny black hair, Joseph a young man of twenty-five with a full beard, and he always patiently leads Mary's donkey, which she sits upon with a clean blue robe wrapped around her heavily pregnant form. When they get to Bethlehem, they set up shop in a clean barn with fresh straw, where she quickly gives birth to Jesus, and then peacefully attends to wrapping him in a lovely white blanket and looking on him adoringly. She isn't at all fazed when a bunch of idyllic-looking shepherds show up to gaze at him.

Let's think for a minute about how the first Christmas more likely transpired.

The governor sent out a decree to all his people that they should all go to their homelands to be counted in a census. This angered the people, who already chafed under Roman rule, but home they went. Joseph left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem, because he was of David's lineage, not because he had any ties to the area. (He must not have had any family there, which explains why they sought shelter in an inn.) They traveled about 70 miles as the crow flies, much more when you figure in the winding mountain trails that lie between the two regions. It would have taken them more than a week, and these were the days before hotels and rest stops. There is no evidence that they had a donkey--they could just as easily have been making the journey on foot, with Mary about to deliver a child. Mary would have been about fourteen years old (imagine Mary as a Mia Maid), and Joseph significantly older. The trail would have been dusty and poorly suited for a pregnant woman, and it would have delayed them significantly. They would have had only what food they took with them or bought along the way (and that gives a whole new meaning to complaining about road food).

When they finally reached Bethlehem, there would have been no "Silent night" with choirs singing "all is calm, all is bright." The town was packed with people whose ancestors had come from the lineage of David, with their animals and families. The streets would have been noisy. The inn was full.

Having no family in the area, they sought refuge in a stable. This wasn't the quaint, thatched-roof barn we place in our New England-themed manger scenes--it was a small cave where the sheep were kept for the night. We don't know how long they were in Bethlehem, but at some time during their stay, the baby's time came, and Mary gave birth at night. I submit that she wasn't up and about immediately after the birth, smiling delightedly when the shepherds showed up. Giving birth to a baby is hard work--they call it "labor" for a reason--and Mary was probably exhausted and in considerable pain. Her feet were tired, she was exhausted from the journey, and giving birth by lamplight in a cave as a fourteen-year-old girl with a man she barely knew (or with some foreign midwives) was probably not exactly her idea of a good time, and definitely not what she had imagined for her life.

Then strange men with weather-worn faces and clothes smelling of sheep started showing up, running to see her child. No violins played sweet strains of beloved carols, no bells rang, no smell of Christmas ham wafted through the air, no stockings were hung by the chimney with care. Her baby cried (that "no crying he makes" line is nonsense. Babies cry.), her husband left to go pay the taxes, and Mary was a stranger in a strange land.

She must have been a very strong young lady. How many of us could handle any part of what she experienced, and still praise God?

What an interesting God we worship--a God who would send His Son to be born of a young girl, cradled in a cave, laid in a feeding trough, greeted by shepherds, raised by a poor craftsman, and die ignominiously, nailed to a tree, killed for sedition---and still have it be the greatest miracle of all time. What a humble Savior we have, who would be born in the poorest of circumstances, He who had formed worlds born as a helpless child, He who had sat on the right hand of God living His life without beauty or glory, and He who created life relinquishing His that His persecutors might live.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

"And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (1 Nephi 11:16-17).

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