It’s only December 1st but if you’re like me you probably didn’t even notice until you happened to glance at a calendar. The “Merry Christmas” war is already in full swing, local radio stations have been playing nonstop Christmas music going on two weeks now, and the Hallmark channel has been playing Christmas movies for at least that long. This year there’s been much focus on the symbolism of Christmas that it’s easy to forget how difficult it is for many. LGBTQ people in particular don’t always have a home to go to and if they do it’s not always a safe place. Keeping that in mind I took a look at the story of the event that started all this, the birth of Jesus, and what I found is that there wasn’t a lot of safety to be had then, either.
The story starts with Mary, who has a child dropped on her unexpectedly and which, in all honesty, she may not even have wanted (Luke 1:26-38). It’s too easy to gloss over Mary’s willingness to go along with this as given in Luke 1:38 that we can miss the emotions she had to be feeling. I’ve never been in that situation but it cannot have been an easy one or her. Did she have plans for her life? That’s all over with now. And when Joseph finds out that the woman he is engaged to is pregnant and not by him (Matthew 1:18-19) things get more difficult still. Even though God shows up in a dream to fill Joseph in on what’s going on, the explanation is hard to believe and would likely have been so for those in their community. They would have known the child Mary was carrying was not Joseph’s and it’s not hard to imagine the reality they had to live with from then on out.
The first Christmas was not a safe place to be and it didn’t get any more so when they left for Bethlehem. Luke’s statement in 2:5 that Mary “was with child” is an understatement. That Jesus is born on this trip means that by this point Mary isn’t just pregnant, she’s very pregnant, and on the road is probably the last place she wanted to be. Whatever support system she had was in Nazareth not Bethlehem. Again, I have no idea what that feels like but it reminds me of the first episode of This is Us where Rebecca finds out the doctor who’s going to be delivering her kids isn’t the one she thought it would be. She is decidedly not happy and I can’t imagine Mary was, either.
When they finally got to Bethlehem their situation didn’t improve much, either. What is Joseph supposed to do now that they’ve arrived but the inn is full? Where will they go? Where will they stay? Several years ago my wife lost her job and we had to move out of the company housing that went with it. Those same thoughts went through my mind. Where were we going to live? What would we do? Our situation was made easier by having family close by but, as far as we know, Joseph didn’t have that luxury. He was on his own to look after Mary. I still wonder who suggested the stable first, Joseph or the inn keeper. Was it an act of generosity on the keeper’s part or an act of desperation on Joseph’s? Either way it would not have been Mary’s ideal place to give birth.
There’s one more detail from this story that jumped out at me and that’s in Matthew 2. Contrary to a lot of Christmas cards and nativity scenes, the wise men don’t actually show up the night Mary gives birth. According to Matthew 2:16 they actually arrive some two years after the fact. What’s interesting here is that by this time the census that brought them to Bethlehem in the first place should be done and over with. Aside from the fulfilment of the prophecy as described in 2:6 there is no reason given in the text for them to still be in Bethlehem. That raises the question as to why the family is still there two years after Jesus was born. As we said, whatever support and family they have is in Nazareth (as far as we know), so why stay if you don’t have to? The only conclusion I’m left with is that they had to stay. My guess is someone got sick and wasn’t up to travelling back. That, in turn, means they had to deal with the uncertainties of settling in Bethlehem and, as most of us probably know, moving is never fun.
The story of the first Christmas isn’t one with a happy ending or a kiss under the mistletoe. Instead it’s full of uncertainty, questions, and no real place to call home. This is how God chooses to come into this world, not as a king on a throne but as a baby, and a baby in a family facing all of life’s uncertainties. If you don’t have a safe home to go to this Christmas you’re in good company. Jesus is not indifferent to it (even though his church might be). He’s been through it all himself.