This is not a tradition. We are not handing down his manger, recycling hay. This is not something to be passed around like an old fur or grandma’s pearls. While a part of history, it is also part mystery. God in flesh, this is not what we would expect.
This is not a habit to be categorized as good or bad, expendable or necessary. This is not a custom of time passed that we must simply become accustomed to. This is more than a festival or a celebration. We are not merely hanging up and taking down decorations.
This is not the stuff of gossip. This is not a rumor for it comes from God’s lips to our ears. From tormented priests, raging prophets to the crisp pages we hold now, this is a message unlike one we’ve ever heard: God is coming in Christ Jesus. There is a young girl who claims to carry him. At the time, she is waved off. “Kids these days!”
God doesn’t talk to young people. No, the work of God is for adults only. Besides, what is Mary going to do with a baby? Why would God put the salvation of the world in the arms of a girl?
Because it would be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. How long does God have to say it? A thousand years have passed but Mary is not ready, and neither are we. “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” But our baby plans are not God’s baby plans.
Nevertheless, she has agreed: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[i] It is the servant’s surrender. Mary empties her will to be filled with God’s own. It doesn’t matter what she and Joseph talked about. What matters now is what God has said to her. This is not up for debate or discussion.
This is his story, the beginning of Christ with us. We begin with him— not in the year of our birth but in the year of our Lord: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2.1.). We are counted with him. Following in his footsteps, he starts with Mary’s. So, we start with Mary.
And hers are weighted down. Belly heavy, she is on foot and expecting her first child. They are on the road but not due to the holiday rush or to pick up last minutes gifts. She and her fiancé Joseph are on their way to his hometown. Unwed and pregnant, she may be wondering what his family will think of her. Maybe she and Joseph have practiced ways to avoid awkward conversations. What will they put on the wedding invitations?
Their families are thinking, “What a mess!” Mary is shamed for our salvation. She is looked down upon so that we can look up to God. She carries Christ and in turn, we don’t have to carry the burden of sin. Jesus is just like his mother.
Poet John Donne says this of her:
“… Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb, and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres times was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is Thy Son and Brother,
Whom thou conceivst, conceived, yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother; …”
This is not a reboot of an old television show, a remake of a childhood favorite. This is a declaration, the annunciation: God is with us.
And of course, it is business as usual. Emperor Augustus is building his Roman Empire, but he is too late. God’s kingdom is already here. Augustus is expanding roadways and God is offering the path to salvation. Augustus is making savvy deals and God has shaken hands with Mary.
And Mary may be squeezing the hand of Joseph. She was feeling some pressure but now it feels more like sharp pains. She thinks that the baby is coming. She cannot hold him in. It’s time.
She has to push. She doesn’t want to breathe. She cannot just think about something else. They have got to stop and find a place for her to deliver. It may be “the most wonderful time of the year now” but Mary is not feeling so hot in the moment.
Oh, we can sing all we want. It was not a “silent night.” Two teenage first- time parents with no birth plan, no doctor, no midwife, no birth plan and no epidural are going door to door, hoping someone will take them in. Two and one on the away, again and again they are turned away.
“Maybe the neighbor next door or down the road can help you. We would help you if we could. We really would like to.We don’t have a spare bedroom or a nursery. We wish that we could help but now is not a good time. We just used the last of our rooms for a walk- in closet. We just extended our master bedroom. We simply do not have any more room.
We don’t have a room for this type of work. No, we’ve got ballrooms and great rooms but no delivery room. We do not have a place for God’s kingdom to come. Besides, it would make such a mess. And I know you say that you have a word from the Lord and you are just carrying God’s message but not tonight. Maybe you could come back some other time.”
But Mary doesn’t have any more time. There is no more room in her body. She has carried him for as long and as far as she can. Walking to Bethlehem only encouraged her labor. And whether you want him or not, invited or not, here Jesus comes.
God created the earth and we can’t find a square foot to receive the Christ- child. We crack our door and whisper through it. We won’t budge an inch. No vacancies. No room for God. This is the story though we dress it up now with lights, ornaments and wreaths.
Mary gives birth in the stable at the inn, in the backyard, in the parking lot of a hotel. Jesus is not welcomed by doting grandparents but by the smells and sounds of the animals. God in Christ is tucked away in a manger. God is not in cahoots with capitalism, not dressed in designer duds, not found at a cocktail party in a gated community. God in Christ is in the manger.
The holy God is not opulent, not draped in diamonds, robed in fields of grass, flanked by mountains, protected by volcanoes. The presence of God is not massive, but salvation comes in pounds and ounces. Deliverance is tied to an umbilical cord. God is with us in a dependent, naked, vulnerable child.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the manger.” God is where we would least expect the divine to be. God is in the manger, in a place we wouldn’t visit, with a person we wouldn’t expect to carry much at all and teenage and unwed, for whom we don’t care much about. She’s just a child. We have shoes older than her.
Still, the Word is made flesh in her. The Creator- God who has and is the word for every living thing coos. God holds back, holds the divine tongue and Jesus cries out for her instead. The God who supplies our needs reaches for Mary. This is the first noel.
[i] Luke 1.38, NRSV