This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Christmas season.
Reading: Matthew 2:13-18
Part of the problem with the way we celebrate Christmas in church is the way we collapse all the events into one another, so that it appears that all the significant events associated with Jesus’ birth happened at the same time. Or at least within a few hours of one another.
Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding a place to stay, (or as the nativity plays wrongly would have it, not finding a place to stay); the birth and the baby in the manger; the shepherds and the Wise Men; they are all presented as happening very close to one another. As, however, our reading reminds us, we are talking weeks and months, not hours and days, for all the events to have taken place.
According to our reading, King Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age, according to the time when the Wise Men told him the baby was born. They visit Jesus in the house where he was staying. Not only would Jesus not be lying on a bed of straw when the Wise Men arrived, he would be up and walking around!
A more likely chronology is that some time before Mary’s baby was due, Mary and Joseph travelled down to stay with relatives in the place where Joseph came from. After Mary gave birth in the privacy of that part of the house where the animals were routinely brought in at night for safe-keeping, shepherds came to offer their congratulations to the family on their new arrival. Eight days later, the baby was circumcised, as all baby boys were. Then a month or so later, Mary and Joseph took the baby to be presented in the Temple. At some point over a year later, the Wise Men came and sought out where the family was living.
Does any of this matter? Yes, because our usual way of presenting the story of Jesus’ birth, apart from being wrong factually, romanticises it and shuts it off from reality in a magical fairy-tale world of its own. But again, as our reading reminds us, there was nothing shut off from reality about our Lord’s early years.
Sometimes, in an effort to make Jesus’ birth seem more interesting, preachers will present the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as that of a poor, homeless family forced to take refuge in a stable because no-one would give them a room anywhere else. But this emphasis on Jesus’ poverty belongs less to history and more to our imagination.
Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. Of course, he would have had somewhere for him and his young pregnant wife to stay. And, of course, there would have been older women to help with the birth. Jesus’ birth, in other words, was unexceptional with nothing to distinguish it as such from the birth of the other boys who were born at the same time, but who were later to lose their lives because of it.
The shepherds turning up on the night may at first seem to have been a bit unusual, but given how intrinsic animals were to daily life and how important sheep were to Bethlehem, having a few shepherds around is hardly all that surprising.
Jesus’ birth was entirely normal and that’s the point. Jesus was truly one of us. To the outside world, Jesus’ arrival in the world was nothing special; it was ordinary even. His family were not rich, nor were they poor; he was not born in a palace, but he was not homeless either. He was one of us.
And as one of us, he was not immune to the events of our world and the harshness of it. King Herod was a cruel leader just like many leaders in our world today who are responsible for atrocities on an even greater scale than the murder of a few children in a relatively obscure village in the Roman Empire.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us. But not he did not do so in a way that distinguished him from us as he lived among us. He was in every way one of us; he was ordinary like most of us.
It is Jesus’ ordinariness that is so amazing.
We too are subject to forces over which we have no control and are made to do things we don’t want to do and to go to places we don’t want to go in order to satisfy the greed and egos of the rich and powerful. We too are victims of their schemes and ambitions. Jesus could have been born extremely rich or extremely poor; he could have been born in a palace, as the Wise Men expected him to have been or in a stable as we would prefer him to have been. But instead, he was born in normal circumstances to ordinary people who by trusting in God were to do something extraordinary.
Jesus’ birth is good news for ordinary people, average people, unremarkable people, people like you and me; people who in our own very ordinariness can experience the extraordinary grace of God.