While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I’m the first born child in my family: reliable, conscientious, structured, cautious, and achieving.
I received both the blessing of being the centre of my parents’ universe for the couple of years before my brother arrived and the not-so-blessing of being the one on which they practised their parenting skills.
I distinctly remember mandatory bedtimes, star charts and chore wheels, strict adherence to age restrictions on computer games and movies (especially when I was going out with friends), and a fervent interest in my education – a.k.a homework and study time – that seemed far less rigorously applied to my siblings …
… while the burdens on me as the eldest to set a good example and take charge (though I think it was probably phrased more as “look after your brothers”) while my parents weren’t home multiplied.
Being firstborn had more implications for Jesus than the influence of birth order on human personality: in his Jewish background, it entitled him to a double inheritance and also signified that he was predestined to serve as a priest unless “redeemed” (see Numbers 3:45-47).
As Mary wrapped her firstborn in cloths and laid him in the manger, I wonder if expectations and entitlements were on her mind; or if she was simply lost in awe at the sight, the sound, the smell of he who embodied a new beginning – both for her and Joseph as “learner” parents and for the whole world that seemed blissfully unaware of and unprepared for the miracle in their midst.
What “firsts” may the future hold for you as your love for Mary’s firstborn grows?
Today was definitely a donkey day for me: a day of slow, but determined plodding through a never-ending to-do list of administrative tasks and unpleasant chores accompanied by the incessant throbbing of a mild lack-of-sleep-lack-of-coffee headache ….
Picture the poor little donkey that had to walk all of those miles to Bethlehem with a heavily pregnant Mary on his back.
Picture it, because although commonly portrayed in art and on Christmas cards, dear donkey does not appear at all in the Gospel accounts (though the tradition does stem from other early Christian writings).
Yet, it is a treasured part of the Godly Play story of the Holy Family:
Here is the donkey that Mary rode when she and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be counted by the Roman soldiers. Mary was about to have a baby, so it was hard for her to walk. Sometimes she rode on the donkey. It is also hard to ride on a donkey when you are about to have a baby. Sometimes she got down and walked.
The donkey was in the stable when the baby was born. He was surprised to find a baby in the feed box, the manger, where he expected to find his breakfast.
I love that the donkey has made it in to our traditions, our stories, our imaginings. Just like I love the way that God makes it in to each moment in which I am open and attentive (and even sometimes when I’m not) – especially on mundane days like these.
So, take a breath; see how God shows up – and maybe even take a moment to share that story with another because it might be just what they need to get through another day.
I remember writing, in my late teenage years, a nativity play for our junior Sunday School to put on for the church at our annual presentation evening. There was a full script, complete with carols and dance routines that ensured each child could play a part.
Joseph was one of the main characters, of course: he is Jesus’ dad after all. But after weeks of rehearsal, on the actual night Joseph was a no-show. And I would have had no show without my middle brother who (very begrudgingly) stepped in to the part just a few minutes before the curtain was raised.
I will never forget the sight of him shuffling uncomfortably across the stage, eyes alternating “adoring glances” between the heights of heaven and the white-wrapped doll in his arms, to Joseph’s Song. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA and AWWWWWWWWWWW!
The real Joseph takes a bow from Scripture shortly after the story of his son’s birth. He is vaguely referenced in the term “his parents” in Jesus’ presentation and circumcision at the temple eight days after the birth and, again, twelve years later when they lost Jesus in “his Father’s house” after a trip to Jerusalem to observe the Passover.
Yet his imprint is unmistakable in Jesus being identified as both the carpenter’s son and a carpenter himself.
Matthew 1:18-25 is headed in the NIV Bible “Joseph accepts Jesus as his son.” Today, I invite you to read his story and to think about the part that your own father has (or has not) played in your life and what mark that has made on who you are.
I’d also like to leave you with Joseph’s Song … because I still find the words beautiful as I search for my own place in the world and find my rest in my Father’s arms.
Conception. Gestation. Delivery. What clean words we can use for the messy act of bringing another life into the world.
With my own first-born, it was a struggle to conceive. And then a struggle to carry him due to persistent morning sickness well into my third trimester – which only seemed to end after a threatened miscarriage. And then a struggle to give birth to him as nothing went according to plan. And then a struggle to hold him as we’d been separated for hours by an emergency surgery and I was so tired and he was so small and long and fragile-looking and I was afraid of dropping him. And then a struggle to feed him after a bout of pneumonia and several rounds of antibiotics – and he grew longer and thinner and I felt like a miserable failure at motherhood just a few months in.
So when I read these simple, clean lines from the first gospel, I must admit that I want to roll my eyes and mutter something unflattering about men telling women’s stories:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
It is good news that God’s promises find fulfilment in the birth of Jesus. It is GREAT news that, in Christ, God is with us – yesterday, today, and always.
But I do wonder if Mary’s feet swelled or what she did in the absence of ginger biscuits to quell her nausea. How she felt having to make the trip to Bethlehem or giving birth far away from home. If she was worried about what this “Son of the Most High” might come out looking like. What she dreamed for his future. If she fretted over what parenting strategies would be best in bringing up the Messiah. Whether she and Joseph quarrelled about this messy miracle that they really hadn’t planned for. How she felt at the foot of the cross on which hope died … and at the empty tomb when hope rose again.
As we continue our faith journey today, I invite you to fill a page with messy thoughts: your ponderings, wonderings, and imaginings of what it may have been like to be Mary, the mother of God.
And maybe you want to spend some time praying for families who find themselves in the messy situations of life where love and hope and joy and peace are hard to find at present.
As we reflect on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem today, I invite you to look around the space in which you currently find yourself.
What do you love about it?Do you consider it a safe-haven, a sanctuary?
At the time that Mary and Joseph received news that she was carrying the Christ-child, they were living in the sanctuary of their community in Nazareth. But, a Roman decree was issued for all to register for the census in their home towns that the Empire might keep careful tax of her citizens – and taxpayers.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Angel visitations. An unexpected pregnancy. And now – an undesirable journey of some 25 kilometres at an inconvenient time!
So, today, I invite you to let this reflection interrupt what you are doing and move you from where you are.
You don’t have to journey 25kms but do take a wander outside, around the block, or simply into a different part of the building where you may be. As you move, picture Mary and Joseph undertaking their journey and try to imagine yourself in the story. The following questions may help you:
how do they feel about going?
what are their fears?
how do they travel?
is it just the two of them or do they travel with a group?
what is the weather like?
how do 25kms feel to a pregnant woman?
God, you are on the move. Move us too. Even when it’s challenging. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when we’re comfortable where we are right now. Move us that we might see things from a different perspective, and put ourselves in another’s shoes, and be counted as people of faith as we follow you. God, you are on the move.
To all my travelling companions on this special journey …
Today we light the second candle of our Advent wreath: the Bethlehem candle which represents faith and reminds us of the journey that Mary and Joseph undertook from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to meet Roman census requirements and, more importantly, in fulfilment of what the prophets had foretold.
In a Godly Play room, the Holy Family is a centre of focus for other stories as they hold deep significance for our faith. Their story is the story of the re-creation of the Universe for, from Mary’s womb, new life comes; not just a new life but the new life of God for the whole world.
Christ’s incarnation changes everything: it changes the way we understand ourselves, each other, the Creator, and the created world around us.
The Holy Family is the focus of attention in the Christmas story with the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem setting others on their own journeys too: the shepherds travel from nearby fields to see if the Good News that they receive from the angels is true, and the wise men travel from afar to bear their gifts to the newborn King.
As we light the second candle today, I wonder what journeys you will be undertaking during this time. ~ Will you be heading off to visit with friends and family? ~ Will they be coming to visit you? ~ What journeys do you remember from your past that hold special significance? ~ What trips might you be looking forward to? ~ And what new life might the Christ-child open up for you?
This week we have entered into the way of hope. It is the prophets who show us how as they hold firm to who God is and what God has promised in the midst of difficult and devastating life circumstances.
Hope does not set us free; it binds us to the hard places, to the dry places, to the burning places, watching and waiting for the bud to blossom, for the river to run, for the promises of God to become a present reality.
Sometimes, we may wish that God would release us and allow us to wallow in self-pity; to throw up our hands in despair and declare, “There is nothing to be done!”
Yet hope catches the lie between ours lips and counters, “Just wait and see what God can do.”
As we journey with your living Word and deeper into the eternal Mystery of God-with-us, may you come to us like a bud on a long-dead branch, like a quiet stream in the desert, like the warm hand of a child, reaching out to lead us. Amen.
Today’s Advent task is to attempt crafting a friendship bracelet like this one:
It’s inspired by another tiny prophet: Habbakuk.
Writing (probably) during the Chaldean period when Babylon was at the height of her power, he converses with Jehovah through a series of complaints to which God must respond regarding God’s punishment and providence.
Do you have any complaints that you would like to make against God today? Choose a colour for your bracelet that will reflect your complaints.
Throughout the conversation, Habakkuk wrestles, as many of us do, with the apparent prosperity of the wicked while good and holy people suffer, but holds stubbornly to the ancient stories of God coming forth to deliver his people despite the “evidence” of God’s inactivity.
His faith is based on God’s faithfulness in the past; on the songs and stories of God’s people throughout the ages. From Joshua’s battle with the Amorites when the sun stood still and the moon stopped in the sky until the nation had been avenged (Habakkuk 3:11), to the surging waters of the Red Sea trampling down the Egyptian’s horses and chariots as the Israelites fled captivity (Habakkuk 3:15), Habakkuk has been nursed on the accounts of a God of Action – Mighty to Save – that enable him to wait patiently despite a clear threat to his personal safety and the wellbeing of his nation as a whole.
What are the songs and stories that you hold on to to remind you of God’s faithfulness? Weave a new colour into your bracelet design as a symbol of God’s goodness.
He writes, in conclusion of his conversation with Jehovah, of his conscious decision to trust in the Lord and rejoice in his Saviour despite their current plight:
“Fig trees may no longer bloom, or vineyards produce grapes; olive trees may be fruitless, and harvest time a failure; sheep pens may be empty, and cattle stalls vacant— but I will still celebrate because the Lord God saves me”
Habakkuk sees everywhere “evidence” of God’s inactivity and apparent desertion yet chooses to celebrate, in faith, the God who has shown himself through the ages as mighty to save.
Choose a bold colour for the final strand of your bracelet as a symbol of your choice to celebrate. How might you share this choice in the world today?
Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:
Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.
In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours.
It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King.
And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.
Isn’t that a beautiful image? A hope to hold on to?
But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year?
It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …
… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.
But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.
Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.
We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.
But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:
Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
Ruth, the foreigner,
Rahab, the prostitute,
Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.
Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.
As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:
what does that promise really mean?
what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?
My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.