A Less Than Ideal Christmas

So Joseph also went up from Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem the town of David . . . (Luke 2:1-7).

She had every reason to be irritable. Add to that irritability a measure of resentment. None of it should surprise us.

Nearing the end of her pregnancy, the last thing she ever planned to do was take a long trip away from home, away from the familiarities of her house and the company of her neighbors. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about ninety miles. They would cover a little over fifteen miles each day. Making that six-day trip to Bethlehem was not merely inconvenient for Mary. It was potentially dangerous for her unborn child. This just isn’t what you do when you’re only days away from having your first baby.

From what we know about Mary, her disposition was not inclined to complain or whine. She had an unusual capacity for yielding herself to whatever came her way, making space for God to do his will in her life (Luke 1:38). There was no one to blame for what was happening. The trip to Bethlehem was hardly Joseph’s idea. The government had issued a decree that everyone should report to their hometown for a census. This was the law and it wasn’t up for vote or discussion.

And so the young couple packed what they needed and made their way to Bethlehem. Probably the last place they wanted to be.

What Does ‘Favor’ Look Like?
There’s nothing ordinary about the story of Mary and how she came to ‘be with child’ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The news of this came to her by the appearance of a messenger from God, the angel Gabriel. Making the long trip to Bethlehem, with plenty of time to think, Mary might have recalled two things that were said to her.

She was told that she had found favor with God. And she was told that the Lord was with her. Given what Mary had been chosen to do those were two realities of which she would need to be certain. God’s favor and God’s presence. Hearing that from an angel was probably quite persuasive. At least for a while.

But now here she was, nearing the day when her baby would be born, displaced and uprooted. Entirely against her will she was on the road and on her feet. This doesn’t sound or feel like God’s favor. If God was with her, why was this happening? In my mind, God’s favor should translate into a life that charts steadily up and to the right. God’s favor and presence mean that things will break my way.

But perhaps God’s favor and our ease have very little to do with each other; they are not the same thing. If we understood this and truly believed it, our expectations and experience of Christmas would change dramatically.

Bethlehem Then and Now
Every year most of us enter the Christmas season with a silently held vision of the ideal Christmas. Whether we say it aloud or not, we dream of smooth and safe travels, gatherings filled with laughter, no one fighting a cold or the flu, gifts perfectly selected and joyfully received, a beautiful dusting of snow free of wintry mix and slippery roads.

But rarely do we get the ideal Christmas, even when the Christmas we get is very good. The first Christmas in Bethlehem is a powerful reminder to us that God comes to be with us in places and circumstances that are less than ideal.

The physical demands of a long trip were far less desirable than being at rest. The borrowed make-do accommodations were nothing like being at home. Most parents plan something better for their baby than a manger for a bed.

Maybe in this first week of Advent you’re already dealing with some things that are far less than ideal. Family tensions, financial burdens, health challenges, work-place stress – any and all of these can get in the way of the ideal Christmas. But God comes to be with us in the life we have right now, not the life we wish we had. Those circumstances you resent won’t change the truth of Christmas. God insists on entering the places and things we’d be glad to avoid or escape.

That’s what we learn in Bethlehem, then and now.

Gracious God, we yearn for the perfect Christmas, when what we truly need is you – your presence with us in the less than ideal details of our life. So come in this season of Advent and meet us in the stories we are living in these days. And teach us the truth of the Christmas story: God with us. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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