One semester my high school art class focused on crafts, including ceramics. While others busied themselves making giant ashtrays and long-haired cats, I concentrated on smoothing seams, selecting colors, and painting a version of the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lying in a manger. For over half a century, these three have held a place of honor in our family Christmas.
Most nativity scenes…aside from a massive display I saw in Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg that included an elephant…imagine that on the streets of Bethlehem…portray the birth of Jesus as a quiet, solitary affair. Until the shepherds and the magi show up, it’s pretty much just M, J, and J along with the livestock.
The story is pretty much the same In the countless retellings I’ve heard. Mary and Joseph arrived in town. They couldn’t find a room in the local inn, so they took refuge in a stable, and that very night, without the need for pain relief or assistance, Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus, by starlight and the gentle, soothing sounds of the curious animals.
Perhaps it is because I am spending so much time alone these days, but that little voice in my head…I really should give her a name… has been especially chatty and persistent lately. Our conversations prompt me to reconsider that 2000-year-old narrative and contemplate the details that might have been omitted, overlooked, or cast aside. I also keep thinking that we would have more specifics if a woman had been consulted while the Gospels were written. Women know that every birth comes with a story and that young mothers are usually eager to share the details. I’ve never heard another birth story as short as…it was time to give birth, so she did. Have you seen “Call the Midwife”?
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”Luke 2:6-7 NIV
Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Not the most efficient plan in my estimation, but it seems governmental bureaucracy has been around, literally, since biblical times. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home…basically his hometown. He had deep roots and many family ties to the small city. Surely, he still had friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and perhaps even grandparents living there.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;Luke 2:4 ASV
As it happens, my son was unintentionally born at home. While my mom stayed with me, my poor father rushed to fetch a nearby friend, a nurse, to help with the early arrival. Dad entered her house without knocking…totally out of character…and said, in a voice cracking with emotion, “I need help. I have a new baby at my house, and I don’t know what to do with it.” Within half an hour of his birth, my son was surrounded by his sister, my sister, my parents, the nurse, her entire bridge club, and the next-door neighbors as well. Knowing the excitement around the birth of my son on a quiet November night in rural Michigan, I find it difficult to believe that Mary and Joseph in a crowded city full of family would have faced the birth alone. The women undoubtedly would have been there to soothe Mary’s brow and tell her when to push. They would have fetched the swaddling clothes, washed the wee one, and rocked him while Mary rested. It seems to me the authors left out all the best parts.
And what about Joseph? He seems to get short shrift in this tale. It’s true that the Joseph in my nativity set lost his crook years ago and has had to have his head reattached a couple of times, but I doubt he was merely a bystander in Bethlehem? If Mary was chosen to be the mother, doesn’t it follow that Joseph was also selected for his role?
One of my fondest Christmas memories happened during the annual church pageant a few years ago. Just as the procession was about to begin, the second-grader playing Joseph looked up at me, and with a voice full of tenderness and hope, asked, “Can I hold the baby, too sometime?” Of course. Wouldn’t Joseph have wanted to hold the baby sometime too? Unfortunately, most depictions have him relegated to the background, pushed aside by the shepherds while looking on beatifically. He must have been tired and perhaps overcome with the miracle and wonder of the moment as he gazed upon Mary and the baby, but he was not unimportant. He gathered hay for bedding, ensured that the sheep and cows kept their distance, and kept Mary and Jesus warm and fed. I have no doubt that then he held the baby too.
The Gospels tell us of shepherds, angels, and magi, but not a word about the people who made reservations and actually had rooms in the inn. There were no streetlights in Bethlehem, so what must they have thought when the light of a brilliant star…a star bright enough to be used for navigational purposes…was suddenly beaming in through the window? How could they get any sleep with something that bright shining in their eyes? Did they drape blankets over the window, cower in their rooms in fear, or grab their robes and sandals and rush out to explore?
And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.Matthew 2:9
If Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because it was Joseph’s hometown, so to speak, what about Mary’s family? Where were her parents?
This year, when so many of us wish we could be with our children and grandchildren, I feel a strong bond with Mary’s mother, who is unnamed in the Gospels and entirely left out of the story. She must have worried, not knowing whether the women of Joseph’s family would support and coach Mary through the birth and how her arms must have ached to hold little Jesus, her grandson. Without Zoom, cellphones, or even a reliable postal system to comfort her, how could she focus on her daily chores during the years the young family was in exile in Egypt?
I have so many more questions, and there are so many stories within stories in this ancient narrative. Perhaps that’s the lesson the voice in my head is trying to teach me. Look beyond the soloist in the spotlight to the angels in the chorus and beyond the shepherds in the stable to the one who had to stay behind to watch the sheep. Like these unnamed characters with uncredited roles, we all have a part to play and a story worth knowing.
Throughout my life, I have seen myself as the frightened shepherd who nonetheless curiously ventures forward, the seeker who journeys toward a promise and a goal, the young mother rocking her child, and now in the autumn of my life, the grandmother, yearning to be near her family. We can all find ourselves somewhere in the narrative if we look carefully.
In the manner of Mary’s mother, this holiday season, I will patiently wait for the time we can all be together again. I will wear my mask, social distance, and wash my hands, keeping myself safe until that time.
In the meantime, like the folks in the inn, I’ll have to decide whether to cover the window and ignore the star or find new ways to join the celebration safely.
Update: Christmas 2021…A year later, the threat of covid still hangs in the air, much like the decree from King Herod following the birth of Jesus. However, unlike M, J, and J, there is no escape into a foreign land. Grandmothers around the world face the same threat and the same dilemma.
And yet, as I await Christmas morning, I chuckle to myself. The wee ones are looking forward to a visit from a chubby, old, white-haired guy in a sleigh, while I, a chubby, old, white-haired woman driving a Mini-Cooper, can hardly wait for the arrival of those little children. So I am vaccinated, boosted, tested, and masked…a small price to pay for smiles, hugs, and the closeness of family.