The celebration of Christmas offers us all an annual reminder of the circumstances of Christ’s birth - the events in Bethlehem so beautifully recounted in every nativity scene. Yet, are those scenes not often romanticized? Are there not many other aspects to the story of Jesus’ entrance into the world that are not usually called to mind?
Take, for example, the case of Joseph. This faithful, humble manual laborer trekked about a hundred miles on foot, all the while taking care to make the journey as easy as possible for his very pregnant wife. Arriving in his native town - Bethlehem - the small village where he grew up, he must have been shocked to find no hospitality there among his old acquaintances. “No room,” was the answer given after he knocked on each door. “But it’s me, Joseph!” he would have replied. “Sorry, no room.” “But look, I’m now married, and my wife is nine months pregnant. Please, please - just a small space.” “No room, I’m sorry. Check next door.”
Imagine the desperation in Joseph’s heart, as any father can relate to when he hearkens back to his wife’s first pregnancy. What anxiety he must have felt as he realized that, having come all that way, he might not be able to secure a roof over Mary’s head. Imagine his sadness at the inhospitable reception he and his wife received in his own home town. Imagine, then, the combination and gratitude mixed with humiliation when he is allowed to stay the night in the stable - an unsterile environment of animals, feces, and urine - but at least out of the weather and affording some privacy. Consider how he must have worked hard to quickly transform that stable into as dignified a place as possible for Mary, just as she begins to experience the first signs of labor, no doubt induced by the stress of the journey.
And in that most humble environment, not unlike that in which the poorest people of our own age often live, God enters into human history. He places himself first in the hands of Joseph who receives him from his wife’s womb, and then in the hands of Mary, whose faith allowed herself to be humiliated by a pregnancy which was interpreted as a sign of infidelity. Then, wrapped in a foreshadowing of his eventual burial cloths, Jesus, the Bread of Life, is placed in a manger - a food trough. Even from his first moments before human eyes, he is beginning to communicate in symbol who he is.
This Christmas, when you look at a nativity scene, remember these things. Remember that poverty and humility were the marks of Jesus’ birth, and then consider your own circumstances and blessings. Remember the poor, who depend on the generosity of we who don’t have to spend the night under a bridge, or in a shelter, or in a car. Remember the inhospitality of the many people on whose doors Joseph knocked, and try your best to not be one of those people. Rather, let a more generous attitude fill your heart when you are given the opportunity to help someone in need. For the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas would later teach, “Whatsoever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
God bless you, and may you have a holy and joy-filled Christmas season.
Father Eric Gilbaugh is pastor of St. John Vianney Parish (Belgrade) and Holy Family Parish (Three Forks)