The perfect holiday

Enjoy this monthly post by Reverend Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services.

I often joke that the most offensive verse to pregnant women in the New Testament must be Luke 2:5. In the old English it says Mary is “Great with Child”, which kind of sounds like a backhanded compliment. Newer translations say that by the time she and Joe were headed to Bethlehem she was “obviously pregnant”.

One of my general rules in life is: Never, ever assume that a woman is pregnant.

Once, in a school hallway, near an exit, I watched as a close friend committed a serious violation of this rule. He was talking with a woman who had recently welcomed a child.

“When is the baby due?” he asked her.
“About six months ago,” she responded.

He ran through the exit, over the hills and far away, never to be heard from again.

Why would the New Testament writer record how obvious it was that this young Israelite girl was pregnant? I think he wanted us to understand her social situation.

The nativity story can be overly romanticized. We picture an overpopulated little town where a portly innkeeper regrettably has to send the nice young couple away as snow falls softly on fuzzy animals nearby.

However, there are two words which are emphasized in this story. The words “for them”. A more literal reading would be: “for them there was no place to stay”. Their social status caused them to be rejected.

Let’s notice three aspects of Mary and Joe’s social situation.

First, their middle-eastern land was occupied by a foreign power. Rome ruled over Israel at the time. And it was for that reason that the burden of travel was placed upon the young couple. They were displaced from their home and made to travel days away when Mary was near her due date. Mary and Joseph were true refugees.

Second, Mary was a pregnant teen. Not only was she a pregnant teen, the circumstances of her conception were suspect to say the least. I’m guessing not many people bought the story of a young girl who claimed her pregnancy was a miracle. All of that would have been enough to stir up controversy in 21st century America. But Mary did not live in a modern society. She lived in a hyper-conservative and religiously tense ancient culture. To say she probably became an outcast is putting it mildly.

Lastly, they were poor and marginalized. We know from Joseph’s occupation and other passages that this family was living paycheck to paycheck. They didn’t have resources or connections.

Suffice it to say, it would have been easy for Mary to wish for a different situation on that first Christmas Eve. Imagine the yearning that could have lived in her heart for things to be different. She was utterly convinced, even if no one else was, that she was giving birth to the Messiah. She knew in her heart of hearts that this was God coming to visit the earth.

And yet she was a poor pregnant refugee.

Christians generally believe that the timing of the birth of Jesus was very purposeful.

If so, was Jesus born to Mary accidentally? Was it a mistake?

I think not.  

Mary and Joseph could give no gift to Jesus. They had no big warm family. They were only encouraged by strange-smelling shepherds from the hills nearby. They did not have a home with cable, heat, internet access and a tree surrounded by presents.

And yet, they had joy. They had each other.

There's a strange story about a rabbi from Cracow who dreamt that there was a massive treasure buried under a certain bridge in a faraway city. So as soon as he woke up, he packed up his things and traveled many days to that city, finally arriving at the bridge. He hid in the bushes, trying to spot the treasure from his dream when a policeman on duty spotted him.

“You there! In the bushes! What are you doing?” the guard demanded.

The rabbi realized he had been spotted and came out of hiding. He answered honestly. “Well, it sounds silly now, but I had this dream where there was a massive treasure buried under this bridge.”

The guard burst out laughing. “You believe in dreams like that?” he said, “If I believed in dreams like that, then I'd be in Cracow right now. You see I had a dream there was a massive treasure buried under the bed of a certain rabbi that lives there.”

And with that, the rabbi thanked him and then headed for home.

This year, don’t go searching to manufacture the perfect holiday.

What do you need to have joy this Christmas?

May I suggest that you don’t need anything more than you already have?

May I suggest that you might not even need much of what you have now?

May I suggest that if all you had was a stable, that you could find joy?

You already have all the treasure you need.

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