The First (and next) Noel
It wasn’t what Mary had hoped for, or expected. Never mind that being with child was itself something that had not been part of her plan at this moment, let alone in this way. Mary had hoped it really wouldn’t be like this. Once the Messenger had left his astounding news and her body had begun to change, she could at least reasonably expect that when her time came she would be at home safe, that her mother and the wise-women of Nazareth would be there to comfort and help her, and to tell her things were going right.
This was so different from what she had imagined. Joseph was a man whose kindness and courage she was only beginning to discover the depths of – but he as a man, had never seen a birth, how much use could he be? And she was trying hard not to resent the stupid fact that because of the descent from King David that his family was so absurdly proud of, and by-the-way wasn’t nearly everybody descended from King David anyway? - because of this royal heritage the Roman census had brought them down south to Bethlehem, at the very worst time for her. Mary felt alone and frightened, everything was wrong, she was separated from her family, the stable was dirty and cramped, the indifferent voices from the street were strangely accented, and she had seen more of the cruel Roman soldiers in the last day than she ever had in her fifteen years – she felt a deep dread of them, certain that somehow, sometime, they and their like would bring her terrible harm.
And now she thought the baby was coming…. Of course afterwards the Authorities claimed that the birth was painless and easy. Of course the Authorities were men.
This isn’t what we hoped for or expected. Our scientists have told us for years that we were vulnerable to a pandemic and that it would probably be caused by the way we treat the world. But even when it came there remained hope that it could be relatively painlessly contained and defeated. But now we look towards Christmas and we cannot say how it will be. Probably there will be no large scale parties, at best movement of people across the country is likely to be constrained and international travel very limited. For many of us this will mean we will be unexpectedly apart from those we love. There may or may not be services in churches. The hospitals will be busy, and medical care for conditions other than Covid-19 will remain slower-paced than usual. There will be anxiety for many, sadness for many, and yes, mourning for some. The economy will be wounded, society fractured.
For Mary, the reality was not as she had feared. Although she hardly knew Joseph, his patience and kindness had helped her feel safe when she was at her most vulnerable. Her body had seemed itself to know what to do, and he had instinctively helped her, she had not felt the shame in front of him that she had thought that she would. His gentle intimate care had even taught her to trust in his growing love.
Then there had been the Others. When she came first, perched uncomfortably on the donkey, into the rather up-itself southern town, Bethlehem had felt like a different world, a frighteningly alien place for a Northern girl. Now, strangely she felt as if she’d known it all her life, and even that her being here was part of a pattern that was right, part of what the Messenger had spoken of; that the whole thing had been conceived long before her. The first of the Others were the shepherds, grubby and shy, clearly wary of the Romans but joyful in a way she wasn’t used to seeing in folk that most people at best ignored, hardly saw even, out on the edge of things. Their reverence towards the Baby illuminated their tired and weathered faces as if for the first time in their lives or in the lives of their forefathers for that matter, hope had been born with him.
Even the sky had changed. Brightly by night and even dimly by day the Star waxed in brilliance. When Joseph left her with the donkey in his brief and careful forays to the market he came back he told her that the brash Bethlehem people seemed suddenly subdued and thoughtful, and the Romans also were changed in mood, the soldiers talking quietly to each other, the census-clerks less arrogantly dismissive. The innkeeper and his wife had taken to putting their heads around the door, and asking with a new and uncertain politeness if there was anything the young couple needed.
And lastly, on a night when the Star seemed so close as to have drawn the heavens with it down to touch earth, so that it was as if the firmament was itself singing, the last of the Others came. They left their servants and their mounts and baggage outside in the sight of the stricken innkeeper. As the sumptuously dressed Magi came in unattended and each bearing a small package, Mary felt that where the Baby had filled the downtrodden shepherds with undreamed of hope, He had a counter-effect on the proud sages. In His presence these men of power and wisdom seemed drained of decades of authority, deserted even by the security of the ancient traditions of their people. Heavy bearded and grey-headed they bowed and presented their offerings with the sudden diffidence of boys. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh, signs of kingship, divinity and sacrifice brought from the ends of the earth. Mary had an overpowering sense that rather than being a different world to her, Bethlehem had become for everybody, at that moment, the centre of the World.
We cannot say how Christmas will be this year. But although we cannot yet see quite what it will be like, we know it cannot be a time of disappointment or even fear. The light shining night by night on the beauty of our church, named after the Mother of our story is a sign of hope in darkness. We may not be with those we expected to be with, and the darkness around is inhabited by real fears. But sometimes just as when you look at someone you love in an unfamiliar setting, or doing something different whether it’s a walk in somewhere new, or working in a new way, you realise quite how comprehensive your love is, so I think the difference of this year’s Christmas will renew in us the wonder and glory of its story of God come amongst us, of love himself, born on Earth.