In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 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, because there was no place for them in the inn. – Luke 2:1-7
The approach of Christmas usually means there’s a pageant at church featuring every child who can be coaxed or coerced into taking part, either in a major role like Mary or the angel Gabriel, a lesser but important part like the innkeeper or the shepherds, or even as a sheep with a little black nose and floppy ears. Like in the famous Peanuts Christmas special from so many years ago, the chaos and confusion always seems to come together (mostly, anyway) and the gospel story from Luke, recited by Linus or read by someone from the congregation, takes center stage. It is the story we come to hear, and the innocence of the children in their roles help us see things a bit differently each year..
Luke may not have been 100% solid on his historical facts, but the symbolism was clear. Jesus, as a descendant of David, had to be born in what was called “David’s city,” Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. Did Mary really have to ride a considerable distance on a donkey at nine months pregnant? Didn’t Joseph and Mary have relatives in Bethlehem with whom they could stay even if they had to be sort of shoehorned into an already crowded house? That was what families were for, wasn’t it?
And then there is the stable – probably the most private place in the entire household for a woman in labor. The straw would have absorbed the fluids and insulated the mother and babe from what could be a cold and somewhat dirty floor. The manger was much like a stationary cradle, a place to put a newborn where it was close to its mother but yet giving her space to sleep a bit after her ordeal. It was really a very practical solution, and it emphasized the humanness of this miraculous babe who had existed before the world was born and who himself was born just as we all are, frail, needy, and helpless.
All during Advent we have been making preparations for the 12 joyous days of Christmas that begins in just a few days. Choirs have rehearsed their anthems, children have practiced their parts for the pageant, priests and preachers have polished their sermons, all in the anticipation of the celebration to come. But it isn’t here yet. We are still facing an empty manger with a barely suppressed joyful expectation of the great event to come.
Still, we must keep watch. There is more to this time of year than making sure the silver is polished, the cakes and pies made, the presents wrapped and the cards sent. What if that manger had never been filled? What would our world be like? Where would we find brokenness? Where would we find healing? Where would we see hope?
Stay alert! Make sure the lamps are full and ready to flame. Make sure hearts are prepared as surely as our families, houses, and churches are. Think about the stable and all that it represents. Imagine what it would have been like had that manger remained simply a place for animals to be fed. Think of it – he was laid in a feeding trough for animals, but he would grow to feed all of us with his precious body and blood. That’s an epiphany for Advent.