Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Revisiting the Nativity

Nativity tree2011
The turkey is all gone; now it is time to start thinking about Christmas.  My music has come out, and I am determined to get the tree up this week.  I also spent some time this past week reading over the Christmas story to get in the holiday mood.  As I read over the story, I was once again amazed by how many of the facts are not what I was taught in Sunday school and how we so often overlook the emotion of the moment.  

Lets begin by looking anew at a few of the often overlooked details of the story.  First, Mary did give birth to Jesus.  Sometimes we just think that suddenly Jesus was there as if magically dropped off by the stork.  Even the smoothest birth is not without its pain and fear.  Now imagine that birth occurring in a barn with only your husband and a bunch of animals to provide assistance and comfort.  There was no preparatory hot water, and Mary would have given birth on the ground, or at best on some hay.  These thoughts usually don't come to my mind as I read the story, but I think they should.

It is hard for me to think of the story of Jesus' birth without humming "Away in a Manger" softly to myself.  So many times in the past when I have thought of the manger, I have imagined some cleaned and polished cradle.  Not only would this not have been clean or smooth, it might have been cold, hard stone, and it probably would have still had hay inside and possibly even the residue of horse saliva still fresh on it.  Not exactly a young mother's dream bed for her child.  The song also mentions the lowing cattle.  Although the story doesn't actually mention it, there is no indication that this was an abandoned stable which would mean that there would have been animals present.  In my mind, I hear almost a soft purring sound of the animals, but it was most likely a bellowing chorus instead.  This certainly wouldn't have been my choice of lullabies for my newborn son.

The final facts of the story that I would like to talk about relate to the wise men.  Nearly every nativity scene that I have ever seen has "the three" wise men gathered around the manger.  Although Jesus received three gifts from the wise men, we are never told that there were three of them (Matthew 2:11).  We are told that they went into the house (not a stable) and saw the child (Matthew 2:11).  The fact that Herod killed all of the male children 2 years and under "according to the time which he has ascertained from the magi" gives the impression that it is more likely that Jesus was a toddler rather than a baby when these individuals finally arrived from the east.

Now that we have re-looked at some of the facts from the story, let's consider the emotions the characters felt while these events occurred.  First, when we consider the feelings portrayed in the nativity story, we need to start with the visit of the angel foretelling John's birth to Zacharias.  In just a matter of seconds he goes from being gripped with fear to dismay (Luke 1:12-20).  Imagine going about your daily work, the only one in the office, and all of the sudden an angel is standing by your desk.  We are not told what this particular angel looked like, but I feel certain it wasn't the cute little angel soft baby angel or even one that had the appearance of men that some did (Genesis 18 & 19).  This was a sight that caused a grown man to shake in his sandals.  As soon as Zacharias gets a grip on his fear, he can't believe what he is being told: he and his wife in their old age will finally have the son that they have desired for such a long time.

None of the gospels give us Elizabeth's reaction upon hearing the news, but I imagine she also gaped in shock at the news.  I also love the description of Elizabeth when she hears Mary's news about her pregnancy.  I wonder if this is the first time that she has felt baby John move.  Even if it isn't the first time, I certainly imagine that it was significantly stronger than any other time during her pregnancy.  I remember feeling my own little one move within my womb; what a joy.  I can't help but wonder just how it felt for her to be suddenly "filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:41).  It was enough to make her cry out a blessing on Mary.  I can almost hear the emotion in her voice as she talks about how blessed Mary is.  I imagine tears trickling down her face from pure joy.

Another woman who wears her heart on her sleeve during this story is Mary.  Luke says that she is greatly troubled by the angel's greeting, "Hail, favored one!  The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28).  Then while she is still puzzling at this, the other shoe drops, and she is told that she will conceive a child who will be the son of God.  The news would not only be hard to believe, but also terrifying considering the society that Mary lived in.  Think about being a young virgin in a culture were a woman could be stoned for having sex out of wedlock and suddenly being told that you are going to have a child.   I love her humble response in verse 38, "behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word."  I wonder if her voice shook with fear or was strong with confidence.

There are probably some details that I left out that we often think about inaccurately or some emotion that I passed over, but hopefully what I have included will help us to remember that this event really did occur and that without Jesus being born, we would have had no savior to give us hope.    

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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