There is a makeshift nativity sitting under my tree. My son made it in preschool a couple of years ago. The barn is made from cardboard with dried up moss stuck to the roof, and the figures are blobs of clay. I love it. It sits under our tree next to ceramic white angels and twinkly lights. Looking at this scene evokes a kind of peace. It calms me. For one, it was made by my child’s hands, which inflates its value tremendously. Second, it is a small reminder of the reverence of Christmas, a welcome solitude in the middle of the cacophony of Santa, holiday checklists, and crowded shopping malls. Yet, even this scene is not the true Christmas. Time has a way of smoothing out all the rough edges. Amidst the singing angels and the shining north star, it’s easy to forget what it must have really been like that very first Christmas, the time of Jesus’s birth.
Imagine you are nine months pregnant, bumping along on the back of a donkey. Pain, coursing through your body in a contraction as you make your way to the inn. Only to be turned away, again. Imagine the desperation, the panic, the judgement. Today, Christians accept the concept of the virgin birth, but at the time, the general population had not gotten the angel’s memo. As Father Moon reminds us, “According to the Jewish law, an unmarried woman who conceived a child was to be stoned to death.” Mary literally risked her life. Think of what might have happened if Joseph had not stood by her side?
With the contractions getting stronger, and the pain more intense, finally you are able to rest, but not inside a warm home with family members to comfort you, in the barn. I gave birth to my babies in modern hospitals with my husband, a midwife, my mom, and a gaggle of nurses. It was painful, scary, and wonderful. Birth under any circumstances is intense. Now imagine it outside, on the cold ground, with only the animals and a guy who is just as scared as you are to help you through.
Six years after my first son was born, I still remember how hard it was to be in labor for 18 hours, but the picture is rosy. I have a beautiful boy. The good parts will forever overshadow the pain. We imagine Jesus sleeping peacefully in a bed of straw underneath beams of starlight, but for all we know, Jesus could have had colic!
Birth is beautiful, but it’s also messy and painful, and scary. This doesn’t take away from the sacredness or the magic of Christmas. For me, it makes it feel even more personal, like it’s something I understand intimately. Birth is a miracle. Life is a miracle.
When I look at that nativity under my tree, I am reminded of the miracle of that specific birth, but also, of all births. I think of mothers and babies, and fathers who step up— biological or not. I think of a God who was there at that birth, but also at mine, one who is present throughout this march of time, and right here, right now.