And so we get to the crucial moment in the story – Jesus is born! Most of us know the story inside out… or at least we’re fairly sure we do.
Images of how the nativity happens are so full of our minds, it’s almost impossible to imagine it any other way. We’ve seen it so many times: Joseph and Mary travelling down to Bethlehem with Mary on a donkey (even though a donkey is never mentioned). Arriving late, with Mary’s contractions already starting. Joseph frantically dashing around trying to find an inn or guest house with a spare room. The last B&B in town offering them access to their stable just as Mary’s contractions get too severe to go any further…. a ‘modesty time gap’ fast forwards us a couple of hours to see Jesus in the wooden manger, with an exhausted but blissful Mary sat next to him, gazing lovingly at Jesus and then Joseph in turn…
And it’s possible that this is how it went. Unlikely, but possible! And it’s a much better story than the more likely one: that, given the length of journey, Joseph and Mary travelled down several weeks earlier and stayed with relatives in Bethlehem. That they shared the single living area with these relatives for the time they stayed there, only relocating into the other adjoining room – small Palestinian houses of that time had two rooms joined together: one for people, the other for animals – to offer some privacy for Mary when it was time for her to give birth. That the female relatives would therefore probably have been with Mary for the birth, rather than Joseph, who probably joined them shortly after Jesus was born, like most fathers of the time would have done. That the makeshift bedding arrangement of the animals feeding trough (manger) was likely made of stone, not planks of wood.
It’s much less romantic, isn’t it? A planned visit, a stay with relatives, decent midwifery, stone bedding furniture.
But it’s real.
And that’s the point. The nativity is not a fairy story, but a gritty, real-life drama. A real baby is born into a real family with a real home and real problems. In other words, when God comes to earth, this is a real God for real people. People like Joseph and Mary. People like you and me.
We like the fantasy version – it’s visually much more appealing, and allows us to put tea towels on our heads with impunity for a couple of weeks. But let’s never miss the real joy of this scene: a real baby is born – a real Messiah for real people. ‘And he is called Emmanuel’ – God with us. Amen.