Last Sunday, Trinity began its annual Christmas liturgy, which includes Christmas music and sermons related to Advent and Christmas. One of the songs we sing was “Away in the Manger.” The second verse of the endearing hymn gets me thinking about the reality of Jesus’ birth and what was actually occurring during that first biblical Advent season so long ago.
The second verse states, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Seriously? No crying. What newborn doesn’t cry when he first wakes up?
Then it hit me: If we go back to biblical times around this season, it means that Mary, only a child by today’s standards, was in her third trimester. By now she would have experienced back pain, sleepless nights, and–if she was anything like my wife during my wife’s two pregnancies–some odd cravings.
We like to paint a rosy picture of the events surrounding the birth of Christ–from a wonderfully sterile manger scene to a heroic cross-country journey of a pregnant first-century peasant family–but that birth was anything but perfect. Jesus cried and whined and ate and pooped just like any other baby, God in the flesh or not.
I imagine that Mary and Joseph had a rough time. For one, the pregnancy threatened the family’s honor because of its untimely conception. Joseph had to keep Mary out of the public eye and avoid scrutiny while wrestling with the fact that their first-born son was not going to be his all along.
And the birth. You remember that Jesus was born in a stable, right? Ever been in a stable? Not the nice ones that are cleaned regularly like those at the horse park; but a first-century farmhouse, with animals and flies and certain smells lingering about.
Not to mention that, shortly thereafter, Herod hatched a devious plan to kill all of the baby boys to insure that another “king,” notably Jesus, would not overtake his throne and invite the wrath of the Roman empire. Mary and Joseph had to travel to Egypt for that one, not an easy trip by camel.
That was only the physical reality; we have yet to mention the anticipation and uncertainty of who that baby would grow up to be. We have the luxury of knowing Jesus’ story from beginning to end; but, at the time, Joseph and Mary only had a promise and a prayer. The promise was that Jesus would usher in David’s kingdom and reign forever (Luke 1:32-33), and the prayer celebrated the fact that God “looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant” (Luke 1:48).
That left much to the imagination, and the most Mary did was “ponder” those things in her heart.
By all accounts, I have a feeling that Martin Luther (the author of “Away in the Manger” according to legend) got that Christmas hymn wrong. One can only dream that Jesus’ birth and life was as easy as that hymn implies. Rather, it seems that the whole thing was quite an earthy affair.
Instead of a sanitary and clean entrance into the world, God-made-flesh got right down and dirty in the mud with the rest of us. Jesus was certainly “Emmanuel” (God with us), and was about as poor as poor could be and grew up in pretty lousy circumstances.
Aside from the fact that Jesus was God and perfect and a king, the real Christmas miracle was that Jesus was very much like you and me when he started out. He cried like any other baby (thus, a lot) and had to grow up in a messy world like everyone else, making his way in life to grow “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).