In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, `Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
`Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, `Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Come now: A manger in Bethlehem? Shepherds and angels and cows and kings? What kind of a ridiculous fairy tale is this anyway? Luke gives us an unmarried little girl, pregnant and poor, giving birth on the dirt floor of a cave that doubles as a barn. Joseph, who is hardly more than a bit player in any of the Jesus stories, soon disappears like so many other fathers from the lives of their children. But Mary–whose hopes for her son are as big and bold and bright as any other mother’s–Mary treasures all the mystical events that she’s experienced in the last year: Elizabeth’s miracle baby John; the strange dream of the Angel Gabriel; and now the shepherds, smelling of lanolin and sweat, their eyes afire, singing songs that sounded as if they really did learn them from angels.
So she treasures it all, and stuffs down it deep in her heart so that she never forgets a moment of it. The cold night air, the steam of the animals’ nostrils, the way that Joseph seemed to be the handsomest man in the world, and there, in the old wooden feed trough, wrapped in bands of cloth, a little red-faced boy, crying and blinking and pursing his lips. And when she held him to her breast, she really did feel that he might save the world, that because of him the hungry would be fed and the rich would be sent away empty. When she looked into those tiny eyes she really believed that this little boy would be more than a carpenter, more than a prophet, more than a king. Because that’s what mothers believe.
It’s hard to believe that she was right. It’s hard to believe that there is anything at all to this tale of mythological beings come to earth in human form. It’s hard to believe in peace on earth and good will to humanity, when there are at least 30 armed conflicts in progress tonight, and a good number of them accompanied by mass starvation of the poor. It’s hard to believe when Sudan and the Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan and Columbia and Baghdad and Bethlehem itself are writhing in the pain of war. It’s hard to believe.
Unless you have looked into the eyes of a newborn and wondered, like Mary what he or she would become. Unless you have felt your own heart swell with the hope that this is someone who will change the world. Unless you have hidden away a secret so big, it made you feel that your chest would burst unless you could whisper it to someone; and when you do, they believe you. Then you could believe that this illegitimate peasant child, born to parents too poor or too foolish to bring him into the world in a warmer, cleaner, place, really could bring peace on earth and good will to humankind, really could fill the hungry with good things, really could send the rich away empty.
Then you can believe what a mother believes. You can believe in Christmas.