Rev. Heather J. Blais
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On a night long ago, a young teenage mother-to-be, and her betrothed, found themselves in Bethlehem. There were no available beds. Which is why this couple seem to find shelter in a place housing domestic animals. Luke writes, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…”( 2:6-7).
Now, women have been giving birth in any variety of places throughout history, so a barnyard birth is not actually that unusual. It even makes sense that the manger, better known to us as a feeding trough, was used for the newborn’s bed. Yet what I find most peculiar, is why these new parents put their child down at all? While the pregnancy was unexpected, we know from the story of the annunciation that Mary is full of joy and wonder, and is ready to serve God in this most unusual way. We know that an angel came to Joseph in a dream, and afterward, he felt called to wed Mary and raise this child together. This child is wanted, and will be loved.
Can you remember a time you held a newborn child? Their frailty and beauty, their small quiet way of slowing us down, warming our hearts, filling us with a tender peace. Their very presence humbles us, and reminds us of who we are and why we matter. They remind us that love “...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
Which is why when our eldest son was born, it took months for us to set him down. We broke all the rules, and he spent his first few months of life sleeping on our chests. When our youngest was born prematurely, we were not allowed to hold him for the first 24 hours. Even on the second day only one of us could hold him for half an hour, and the next day, the other parent got to hold him for a bit longer, and so it went for the first few weeks of his life. It was agonizing to not have that sweet and beautiful child in our arms.
Which makes me wonder, why is this newborn, who is loved and wanted, not being snuggled in his parents’ arms? Even after the shepherds arrived a while later, Jesus was found resting in the manger--just where the angel told them he would be. It could be that there were medical issues that arose or that they needed to sleep after a long labor. Yet I can’t help but wonder if it is something more.
One very real possibility is the fear all new parents face, not knowing what to do. During those nine months of pregnancy, you can fret about every possible scenario under the sun.
What if I do something wrong?
What if they get hurt?
How will I know what to do?
What if my parenting will cause years of therapy?
Giving birth and raising a child is an exercise in faith. Is it any wonder that this is how our God chose to come and walk amongst us?
We do not get many glimpses of family life for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus--but we know they face the impossible together. They will be refugees in a foreign land. Mary and Joseph will think they’ve lost a teenage Jesus, when really he’s wandered back to the temple to teach. Jesus will abandon a normal life as a carpenter’s son to engage in a public ministry of transformative love and reconciliation. A ministry that will so upset the establishment that it will cause him his life. There was plenty for these young parents to worry about.
Yet they also may have refrained from holding him out of reverence. After all, somehow, this infant is God made flesh. They do not know how, but they know somehow God is really present in this child. Just as we do not know how, but we know that Christ is somehow really present in the bread and wine we consume in the eucharist. God has given us a tangible form of love. Both in this child’s body and in the way Christ’s love is poured out for us into the bread and wine, and into each of us again, and again, and again. Love made manifest.
By putting their newborn child in the manger, Mary and Joseph are signaling to the rest of us that something momentus has begun in this child’s very arrival. They are signaling to the animals resting nearby, to the shepherds who will visit, to the wise men who will journey from afar to see them, to the poor, hungry, homeless, and hurting that Jesus tended to in his ministry, and to all of us here today, that this child is a child for all of creation. This child before all of us is Love in human form. Love made manifest.
We may never know why Mary and Joseph lay their newborn in the trough. Maybe it was the fear of new parents, maybe it was reverence, I think most likely it was both. What do you think was happening at that moment?
This Christmas, I invite you to find a quiet moment and remember that love came down at Christmas in the form of a newborn child. What might it be like to hold such love in your arms? How is the love of God made manifest in your life this day and every day? Amen.
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