The last thing any woman wants to do when she’s nine months pregnant is go to Bethlehem. I don’t care if you're fifteen or forty-five years old, there is a significant biological mandate that makes itself known at the end of pregnancy that says, “Get home! You are about to have a baby!” Pregnant animals know this. When they are about to give birth they retreat to the safety of their dens. And pregnant women do to. As modern women we do a great job of letting our brains get in the way of our instincts, but even modern women find themselves cleaning and organizing their homes, driven by a biological need to “nest,” as their due date approaches. So the last thing any pregnant woman, first century woman or twenty-first century woman, wants to do when she’s about to give birth, is travel.
But Mary’s story is filled with plans that she didn’t make. Looking back over the nine months she remembers her miraculous conception, her reluctant fiancé, the angel with big promises, and the compelling emotional encounter with her cousin Elizabeth. And now this. Her birth plan is thrown out the window, as she and Joseph follow Caesar’s orders and head to Bethlehem. As she grabs her bag and walks out the door she thinks, “Maybe at least the walking will put me into labor.” Because no matter how scared you are, no matter how much you would rather be in the safety and comfort of your own home, the one thing every pregnant woman wants when she gets to that forty week mark is to not be pregnant anymore. And she knows that walking helps. Every step moves the baby’s head deeper into her pelvis, pressure mounting in her hips, subtle but increasing pain in her lower back. With every step she wonders if this will be the one that will break her water and send her searching for the nearest safe place to give birth.
Sure enough, this normal teenage Jewish girl whose life has suddenly become filled with divine surprises, goes into labor. Mary knows how births are suppose to happen. Her mom and her midwife are supposed to be there, but they aren’t — they are home in Nazareth. And she is apparently having this baby in Bethlehem. Like the woman who gives birth in her car assisted by a 23 year old highway patrol officer with basic first aid training because traffic is stopped dead and the baby won't wait, Mary depends on the care of strangers as she gives birth to her first-born, a son.
After the ubiquitous uncertainty of pregnancy, the amazing creation process of labor and childbirth works the way it’s supposed to. The chaos of traveling, frantically trying to find a place to stay while the contractions grew more frequent and intense, has ended, and Mary feels intensely grateful that she and her baby have survived. The hay of the manger and the soft swaddling clothes feel oddly perfect as she holds her beautiful newborn in her arms. She feels his soft skin against her own as he nurses himself to sleep.
Her mind is tired, and her body’s exhausted, so she sleeps as well. Off and on for the next twenty-four hours, she sleeps. A blanket keeps her warm as the baby lays on her bare chest, and the Bethlehem midwife she’s only known for a few hours gives her sips of water and soup. As she dozes off she remembers the angel’s words. “Do not be afraid.” And she realizes she’s not. She is filled with a crazy mix of feelings right now, but fear is not one of them. She actually feels courageous. It’s a divine maternal form of courage unlike anything she has ever known before. And in this hazy, weary, postpartum state, there is one thing that is crystal clear to Mary. She is this boy’s mother and she will do whatever she has to do to take care of him. Wherever his life leads, she will go.
“And they came with haste and found Mary, Joseph, and the babe, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:16)
Amy Bost Henegar Minister for Family Life and Spiritual Formation Manhattan Church of Christ New York, NY
Image: Where Advent Begins © Jan Richardson