What Mary Knew
There are things you expect when you have your first child. Family should be there, for one thing. Maybe not in the same room where the event is happening, maybe not even in the same town, but they ought to be there for you, cheering you on, congratulating you, oohing and ahing over your purple, cone-headed baby with its spindly limbs and disproportioned body.
He’s beautiful, they say, even though, speaking honestly, freshly-born babies are beautiful only because they’re freshly-born babies. If you met a full-grown version of one out on the street, you’d either scream or sign them to a multi-picture horror franchise deal.
Friends should drop by at some point after the baby is made presentable. They’ll hold him, coo over him, and offer to bring by a dish of poppy-seed chicken later that week. Once your family and friends start spreading the word you’ll get phone calls from people you know but aren’t close too, texts from people you vaguely remember (and wonder why they have your number), and social media congratulations from people you don’t think you’ve ever met and you think, perhaps, they ought not be privy to those baby pictures you’re posting every seventeen and a-half minutes (Look, the baby’s eyes are open! Check it out, the hands move and the fingers clench and unclench! He’s so cute with this hat! He’s so cute without the hat!)
The birth is the culmination of several months of great anticipation and preparation. Week by week you watch as the evidence of the impending event asserts itself with more and more conspicuousness. People stop and marvel over the expectant mother and then pose vague threats to the father (You have no idea what’s coming. Life is about to change forever. You’re not ready, but that’s ok.) all in the name of sharing the joy of parenthood. Somehow pregnancy and newborns are like a magic glue that unites strangers in a weird, but comforting bond of community and joy. Friends and family, too, are all brought together and pasted into a place called happiness when a baby’s born.
Cue “When a Child is Born” by Il Divo.
Obviously this isn’t true for all. Children aren’t always perceived as blessings, pregnancies aren’t always planned, and friends and family don’t always approve of a couple’s family-planning philosophy. Sometimes strangers say the nicest things, and sometimes they’re complete jerks (They cast their gaze of Final Judgment over your family of two toddlers and the allow it to settle on the Offending Womb, ripe with the fruit of fertility. “You DO know what causes that?” they ask, which is code for “You hormone-driven, sex-crazed teenagers.”) Even when the unborn child is loved and accepted, sometimes the economic implications themselves cause stress and apprehension on the part of the parents.
Christmas is the celebration of what was probably, from the perspective of the expectant couple, the worst pregnancy and birth in the history of such things. When Mary answered Gabriel with the emphatic, “May it be done to me according to you word,” she wasn’t merely assenting to an unplanned pregnancy, she was accepting the horrible social burden that came with it. The Bible gives us few details concerning the responses Mary received from her social circles, but they probably weren’t gracious:
“Couldn’t she just wait a few more months?”
“Who do you think the father is? Joseph hasn’t been in town for several weeks.”
“It was probably a Roman soldier. Pigs.”
“Does she think anyone is going to buy that story?”
Joseph certainly didn’t believe her, not until an angel spoke to him. While some family probably tried to put on a happy face and look past the obvious illegitimacy of the child, behind every forced smile was disbelief. Every nice word strained for in a conversation was a replacement for what that person really wanted to say.
Even the birth was all wrong. No family on hand. No friends standing-by with 1st-century casserole dishes at the ready. It was an out-of-town birth; out-of-sight and out-of-mind of anyone who might have even tried to be happy for them. It was probably a relief to family that the birth happened away, where the shame could be ignored if not concealed. The hotels were all booked, even the one with bedbugs and a rancid continental breakfast. The fact that they were surrounded by strangers might have been the only real comfort Mary and Joseph had in that moment. No one to pass judgment on them or tsk-tsk as the baby came into the world. Sure, the donkey was protesting at the hostile-takeover of his trough and, yeah, the camel was spitting in their general direction, but at least the pig was keeping its’ distance (dang Romans and their love for pork-products).
But then afterwards, when the drama was over and Mary was holding her child and Joseph, exhausted from the ordeal, was taking a nap across the doorway, she might have yearned for friends and family. Even judgmental people love babies. Even though they flat-out disbelieved her story, it was still Mary’s baby, her first-born. Even a bastard baby is beautiful, right?
Maybe that was the moment when, as she wished for someone to appreciate and be awe over her baby, Mary heard frantic footsteps outside. Sandals striking dirt and rock as someone, multiple someones, hurried up the little path that led to the stable. Joseph jerked awake as their voices grew louder and he stumbled to his feet as the entryway was filled with…
Wretched in appearance, smell, and general character, a horde of shepherds flooded the stable exclaiming about angels (them again), prophecies, choruses and other nonsense. Is this the child? they asked, The promised child, the Savior, Messiah, over whom the angels rejoiced?
Joseph was having a heated argument with one just outside the door.
The shepherds waited, growing silent as Mary took it all in.
The one at the door had a louder voice than Joseph and used it to shout over him:
“Is this the Promised One? Is this the Christ child?”
The shepherds believed it was.
So did Joseph.
But only Mary knew.
Yes, she said, smiling through tears. This is the baby you’re looking for.
The shepherds got rowdy again, yelling and whooping, and scaring the camel into spitting on their heads and the donkey into drop-kicking the pig.
The baby woke up.
Mary shushed them all, unsuccessfully.
Joseph stopped arguing and stood back in bewilderment.
The shepherds pressed in and around, oohing and ahing over the baby. One told Mary she looked great. Another offered some semblance of food. A third took off his wool vest and draped it over Mary’s shoulders. A few more on the outskirts pumped Joseph’s hands in congratulations. He looks just like you! one declared.
Yes, you can touch him, Mary said, bravely. But just the crown of his head, or his little hands or feet. No, don’t kiss him, I said don’t- never mind. No one else kiss him. Yes, his eyes are beautiful. No, he’s not white, he just looks like that because of the light in here.Why would we want a pet lamb? Who keeps making that “Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum” sound?
Was this it? Was this Earth’s official welcoming committee to God Incarnate? Smelly, filthy, thieves, liars and degenerates? Everyone knew not to trust shepherds, or believe them when they told you anything besides, “Hello, my name is Shepherd, and I’m a degenerate.” Couldn’t God have found a better welcoming committee than this? They didn’t even know how to make poppy-seed chicken! Was this the plan? God, born in a stable, greeted by shepherds, ignored by everyone else? Would the only people who spread the word about the birth of God be society’s most unreliable and least-believable messengers?
Hey, there, random Bethlehem-ian, I am an untrustworthy shepherd and I am here to tell you that an angel appeared to me and my buddies and told us that the Messiah was born tonight in that stable over there!
Yeah, no one was going to believe that.
No one would ever know.
And yet, as the crowd of unexpected well-wishers filed out, pressing into Joseph’s hands a stray shekel or two that had been hidden in the folds of their garments and as they descended on the town like a band of whooping madmen, yelling about angels, goodwill, and great tidings, Mary treasured the moments, the memories, the sights, sounds, and smells of a stable filled with animals and reprobates.
Joseph stared in disbelief.
Mary hummed in wonder, rocking her baby back to sleep.
Because Mary knew. Yes, Joseph believed. Yes, the shepherds and a couple of relatives believed (bless Elizabeth’s heart. Zacharias', too.), but only Mary knew, beyond any shadow of doubt or disbelief, that her baby was God’s Son. In fact, in that moment, Mary might have known God better than anyone. Because while everyone wondered IF God would do something so bizarre, so unexpected, only Mary knew He had, and was, and would keep on surprising everyone. And as Joseph settled in beside her, kissed her forehead and told her he loved her, Mary clung to what she knew, clung to hope, to love and to the knowledge of Immanuel.
And rocked Him to sleep.