The high at 3pm on December 24, 1990 was 15.3 degrees Fahrenheit. By that time, my son had arrived and was being measured, poked, and swaddled. Earlier in the day, we had had to jumpstart our 1980s something Honda Civic, because the low was 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and with windchill, well, let’s just say the weather history site says it was “Frigid”. I had awakened that morning with contractions, and they had been getting closer together for awhile. By the time we were ready to hit the road in our car with plastic sheeting for a driver’s side window, the contractions were about 5 minutes apart. At the hospital, this teeny tiny little old lady pushed my very large, very pregnant, very angsty self in a wheelchair at the rate of 2 inches per hour, or at least that’s what it felt like to me.
I’ll leave the rest of the birthing story for our next in person conversation, but suffice it to say we arrived at 1:00pm to an eerily short-staffed labor and delivery, and by 2:45pm my son was born. At 3pm, my son was crying his little heart out from a needlestick, when the only doctor anywhere nearby finally popped his head in and said “What, born already?” and scrubbed in to finish up.
My story of birthing my oldest is unique, but then all birthing stories are. And the one Luke relays to us is so familiar to any church attendee as to be recitable from memory.
He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
We know it, we have seen it, we have heard it, and yet it is still very personal and precious. If we can go back in time for a minute, to the apostle John’s house where Mary lived after Jesus ascended into heaven, I think if we peek in through the door, we might see Dr. Luke, sitting next to Mary, taking notes, as she relays to him the very unusual and precious story of Jesus’s birth. Her eyes might be closed as she returns to that night, that messy, complicated, simple, beautiful, timeless night when the Good Shepherd was worshiped by shepherds in a manger. When poor Joseph is equal parts bewildered and proud and uncertain; when the stable stall with hay on the floor is the labor and delivery suite.
As she remembers, does she tell him or keep to herself that she fumbles to nurse for the first time hoping he will thrive and grow. Or how she hoped Joseph would love him as his own. Or that she still sometimes wonders why God chose her. Did she tell him of the days and nights in his growing up years that she spent wondering how this boy can possibly topple kingdoms, when he is so sweet and kind and full of grace? As she regales Luke with her attempts to get on and off a donkey at 9 months pregnant, and speaks of desperate searches for a suitable place to stay in Bethlehem, is she again swept up in the awe of the miracle that is Jesus?
All of this is holy imagining, of course– the text seems to give only a small hint that Luke heard it from Mary directly. In verse 19, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”, sounds like an attribution – Mary held on to this and told me (Luke) all about it, so I could share it with you.
As a mom and a pastor, the Luke 2 text is an amazing gift. The very ordinary and normal process of a woman giving birth becomes the backdrop for the miraculous. Giving birth is always an event – it’s part of so many families stories, so many oral traditions – and Jesus’s arrival is no different. As Jesus is wrapped in cloths, as the shepherds worship, as Mary treasures all that is happening – the miraculous incarnation of the Son of God is fitting itself into the very fabric of every human, of all of us. Because that is the point of the Christmas story. To show us that we matter enough to the God who created us that Jesus would be born to an unwed woman in desperate circumstances. What humans experience would continue to be what Jesus would experience, as both God and Man. As an origin story, this is pretty basic. But as a human story, it feels familiar and comfortable and wonderful.
In the story God tells in scripture, over and over the mundane is made magnificent as a pronouncement of mercy and grace for us. This story is unique in that it has elements that are specific to this little family. This story is not special in that it has elements that are universally true for most babies born – mine included. After months of expectation, worry, wondering, and growing love: a precious child was born. Mary’s story in Luke’s gospel invites us to rest in that common ground and delight in its normalcy as well as its majesty. For unto us a child is born, Isaiah says, unto us a son is given. And that is good news for us all.