There is no denying that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are difficult. Months into her pregnancy, which in itself was as much a source of unkind gossip as it was of joy and anticipation, months into her pregnancy, Mary is required to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. On the whim of some different Emperor, in the interests of the smooth running of his empire, who has decreed that everyone should be registered Mary’s life and her pregnancy are intruded upon. This is an irritating intrusion by itself, but in Mary and Joseph’s case it is a major inconvenience, since it requires him to go to Bethlehem and take his pregnant fiancee with him. This is because he has some family connection there, and presumably because he still had some property there, because of course the real point of the registration was tax! Things being what they were in Nazareth, Joseph had no choice but to take Mary with him. It was the only way for him to care for her. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in ideal circumstances, takes about half a week. For a heavily pregnant woman it is a slower and much more uncomfortable journey. Each step of that journey Mary and Joseph worry about the well being of the child she is carrying. Bethlehem holds little welcome for them. There is no where for them to stay, no welcoming family home, not even space in an in. The only option available for them is to squat in a stable. This space provides some warmth and shelter at least, but it is hardly ideal, especially not as a place to give birth to a child. But there it is the Mary brings her son into the world. She does it without the care and support of her mother, or aunts or sisters or older female friends. She delivers her child surrounded instead by beasts of burden: donkeys, oxen, perhaps even horses and camels. She wraps him in strips of cloth and lays him in the hay of a feeding trough. She calls him Jesus. This is not how she or anyone would hope to give birth to their baby. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth are difficult.
But it is not as if Mary’s pregnancy, the expected arrival of her son, is the cause of these difficulties. There is not a direct causal relationship between her pregnancy, the birth of her son, and the circumstances she finds herself in. With hindsight perhaps, we can say that these things happened for a purpose. But from Mary’s perspective they were just one thing after another, each of them making her situation more uncomfortable. And as difficult and distressing as these circumstances are, they are hardly unique. Indeed they might be thought of as the common lot for much of the human race. In these circumstances we see oppression Mary and Joseph are sent from one place to another, not of their own choosing. Their lives are not entirely their own to control. There are powerful forces, political, social and economic that play out in the world. These forces shape the lives of everyone in the world. But the vast majority have next to no say in how these forces affect them. In these circumstances we see displacement. Mary and Joseph are not quite refugees, as it happens they do have a home to go back to in Nazareth. But like so many they are displaced from their home. This displacement, whether it is permanent, as it is for refugees, or more temporary, cuts people of from their networks of support. And in these circumstances precarity, or vulnerability. Joseph has a theoretical, ancestral connection with Bethlehem, but not an actual one. When he an Mary arrive in Bethlehem there is no one to welcome them and no where for them to stay. They are, like so many people, precarious, vulnerable. They are reliant from one day, one moment to the next on what they can scrape together to survive. They are dependent on the goodwill of those around them, or at least on other not choosing to further exploit them because of their vulnerability. They have nothing in reserve, nothing to fall back, not margin of error between them and crisis. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth are the circumstances of the lives of many, perhaps the majority of the people of the world. These are the circumstances of people who live at the margins detached from wealth and power and control over their own lives. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth are just the way the world is for many people.
Some months ago when Gabriel had visited her with the strange news that she would have a baby, the angel declared something Mary knew to be true:
“Nothing will be impossible for God”
God is the God who can make virgins have babies. God can do anything God wants to do. God could have arranged for the birth of his Son in anyway he liked. Did Mary every wonder, “Why God? Why like this? Could you have not arranged things a little easier for me.” That God can do anything, but that God chooses only to do some things, takes us into a difficult area of theology, called theodicy. Why does God do what God does, especially when it sometimes has unpleasant consequences? It is a strange exercise since it essentially attempts to judgement on God’s action. And as Job discovered centuries before, there is nowhere to stand outside of God and look back and either justify or condemn what God has done. Nothing is impossible for God. God could arrange for his Son to be born in any circumstances he wanted. What God chose was for him to be born to a virgin, as yet unmarried, who was pushed from one place to another, and found that she must give birth in a stable.
And that is the point. God can do anything. And God chose to do this. And in so doing God reveals himself to us. The message of Christmas is that God chooses to become part of our reality As Wesley’s hymn puts it: “Our God constricted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.” But more than that Christmas shows us the character of God. It reveals to us where and with whom God is at work. As we read it, the story we read actually started far away from Nazareth and Bethlehem. We are shown first the rulers of the day: Augustus and Quirinius. But they are quickly forgotten. As if to say, don’t look there, look over here. The message of Christmas is this: God can do anything. But God chooses to act in this way. When God becomes human he does so in the kind of difficult circumstances very many people find themselves in. God chooses to identify himself with the oppressed, the displaced and the precarious. If we would see and know God, we need to know where to look. And it is in a stable, with people in those circumstances that we will find him.
The Birth of Jesus: Where and With Whom by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0