It’s amazing to me how little we know about the life of Jesus, considering the impact he has on the world. Even his birth, such an odd arrangement of circumstances, is recounted in fewer than 40 verses in the Gospels.
We know this: Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to take part in a census. Since there were no available rooms in town, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable.
As a young mother, I’m especially reflective on what Mary’s life must have been like in those days leading up to the birth of Jesus and the weeks after. I picture Mary groaning with fear and overcome with labor pains as Joseph went from inn to inn searching for a room. My skepticism forces me to wonder if the inns really had room, but the innkeepers didn't want to host a woman in labor. I also wonder if Mary went into labor because she rode a donkey for days and days. (That would have probably brought on my labor!)
The Christmas story is so brief and the birth is described with so little detail, that I think we can miss how miraculous this event truly was. “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger.” (Luke 2:6-7)
It sounds so simple and easy, doesn’t it? For me, there’s a missing element of humanity. There’s no picture of the panic of Joseph or the pain of Mary or even the musty smell of the stable. We don’t hear the bleating sheep or the cry of a newborn.
There’s a novel called The Handmaid and the Carpenter, which provides such a fresh interpretation of this story that I make an attempt to read it every year around this time. In the midst of the birth story, Elizabeth Berg writes: “She endured massive waves of pain, and in between them pushed with all her might. Joseph sat crouched near the doorway, helpless, his eyes wide. Mary looked at him and then beyond him, at the black sky filled with stars—she had never seen such stars. There was one far brighter than the others, and it was this star that she eventually focussed on, for its ethereal presence brought her calm.”
And so Jesus was born. But what happens next? I wonder how many days they stayed in Bethlehem. Did they visit somewhere else before their journey home to Nazareth? How did Mary feel? How did Joseph help take care of Mary as she recovered? How well did Jesus sleep?
I am filled with so many questions, but most of all, I am filled with wonder at how Mary welcomed her child to this world. The conception of Jesus is surely a miracle, but let us not forget his birth. Despite the seemingly desperate circumstances, mother and child both survived birth in a strange stable far from home and family. I would say that too is a miracle, which would make the Christmas story a miracle of miracles.