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.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
I feel inadequate to reflect on birthing, after all it’s not something that I have ever done. That experience of balancing on the thin edge between pain and joy, the culmination of 9 months (or more for many) of nurture and hope, has never been mine. But I chose these themes of waiting, accepting, journeying and birthing. So now I am forced to reflect on birthing in a way that I have avoided for many years. Although I lack experience of the physical experience of giving birth I fall back on my reason for choosing these themes, which was because because they resonate with my current journey towards the new thing that the Holy Spirit is birthing in the NZ church, and my longing to see the new burst forth.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is surprisingly prosaic, almost terse. These few sentences are all that Luke thought we needed to know and he leaves out so many details. Luke writes like he assumes that we the readers know exactly what he means, and his first readers would have. Unfortunately we live more than 2,000 years after Luke and we aren’t familiar with how births were conducted at the time, and so we crave more detail. However his lack of detail leads us to safely assume that this was a completely normal and unremarkable birth. A young woman gave birth, according to the customs of the day, which most likely involved midwives and other women involved in the process. It is the surrounding verses that help us understand that this was actually an extraordinary event, and point to its spiritual significance.
It was an ordinary natural event that had spiritual repercussions for the whole of creation. When I reflect on this story I am always flabbergasted that God loves the people he created so much, and is so interested in us and our world, that he chooses to use us in his plans. Humans are so fragile, and it seems so risky that God’s transformative plan was reliant on Mary giving birth. Adolescent mothers face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than other women. Yet God chose this very ordinary way of sending Jesus to the world.
Although Mary was involved in something of world changing significance, most of her part in it was ordinary, something her body would do naturally, something that is universally a natural part of many women’s lives.
I long to begin something large and significant, to start a movement that changes the world, but most days after doing the washing, cooking dinner and playing with my son I just don’t have the energy. I am not sure that I even have the capacity to think that big. This story from Luke gives me hope that perhaps I don’t have to think that big. Mary did something natural and ordinary, that was within her gifts and capabilities and through that the most extraordinary world changing unexpected work of God began. Her story suggests that all I have to do is the next most natural ordinary act that is in front of me and I may not even need to understand it’s significance or the final outcome. It can be through my unremarkable, ordinary actions, that the Holy Spirit can work in new and unexpected ways. This is summed up nicely by Tolkien whose character of Gandalf says
“ it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.”
Luke’s decision to leave so much out of the story, makes it especially interesting when he does include details. It was a crowded busy time during the census in Bethlehem and there was no room for Mary to give birth in the guest house, so for whatever reason (and again Luke doesn’t specify) Mary gives birth where the animals were kept. Luke must have had a reason for including these details, and I wonder what they were. It has become trendy to interpret this as Mary and Joseph being excluded and outcast, and although I am tempted to go there there is little indication of this in surrounding verses. All that I can confidently conclude is that finding the Messiah in an animals feeding trough was totally unexpected and unpredictable. God has worked outside of the mainstream religious structure, and an animal’s feeding trough is as far away from the temple as you can imagine!
Mary’s ordinary risky, painful, joyous event, initiated a new, unexpected work of God.
For me this story is a call to be open to God’s working in unexpected places, through unexpected actions in unpredictable ways. We need to be sensitive and alert to God being at work as they might surprise us and open up new ways for us to live and serve God.
This small prosaic story from Luke prompts us to ponder:
What small, ordinary action lies before me, that may have spiritual significance?
What ideas, thoughts, actions are growing inside me almost ready to burst forth?
Am I looking in unexpected places to find God’s fresh work?