We're getting very close to Violet's first birthday, which of course makes me reflective. I remember all the anticipation of her coming, the lingering concern over unknowns, and the joy of her arrival. Now as we read Grace her little Christmas books and ponder the birth of Christ, I can't help but think how wrong we get that whole event in these stories.
I understand that they're written for little kids, and that the Bible is not an obstetrics textbook, but reading them it's easy to think that Jesus popped into the manger as easily as a thought would pop into Mary's head. Or perhaps he was delivered by the UPS man late in the night, as he sure seems to be working late around our house this time of year. "During the night, Mary's baby was born." This is how the kids' books put it. Christmas carols are really no better. "The cattle are lowing / The poor baby wakes / but little Lord Jesus / No crying He makes." Really? Not only is this stupid, it's horrid theology if Christ is to be both fully God and simultaneously fully human. No human newborn I've met wakes up quiet and still, much less one woken up by a cow mooing and chewing cud in his ear. Getting to that point is equally succinct in Grace's books. "Mary and Joseph were very tired, but there was no place for them to stay." Yes, Mary and Joseph were both tired. Equally so. Long trip and all. Oh, and one of them was 9 months pregnant and, unless human physiology has changed significantly in the last 2000 years, in labor with her first child. But they were both really tired.
I think it is likely the cultural norms of the 1st century that kept the Gospel authors from going into any specific details of Christ's birth, and I guess you could argue that such details aren't really necessary to understand the significance of God taking on flesh. But I think the whole thing is more legitimate if you think about what really happened in that stable, and what led up to it.
Mary was a teenager pregnant with her first (out of wedlock) child. I've been around plenty of teenagers giving birth to their first. Their labors tend to be long and painful. Mary had been riding on a donkey all day, and while they are looking for a place to stay it's entirely possible she was already in labor. Inn keeper after inn keeper keeps turning them away, despite the fact that Mary is very obviously pregnant, and as the day wears on likely having contractions. The Bible makes no mention of the desperation that Joseph and Mary must have been feeling. As they go around the city they must be increasingly aware of what is about to happen, and increasingly aware that they will not be able to deal with it in the usual fashion. I recall my weak attempts to meet Julia's needs as she labored, in an advanced medical facility, and can only imagine what powerlessness Joseph felt as he couldn't even find a room. Angels did not promise her an easy labor, or forewarn them that they'd be staying the night in a place that smells of animal waste and moldy hay.
But that's exactly where they ended up, at some point deciding that this was their best option. Mary is fully in active labor soon, and since the Bible makes no mention of a third party, there is no midwife in sight (unless the cow counts, because I bet she's given birth a few times at least). This means that not only did Joseph accept that his bride-to-be is pregnant with God's son and not send her on her way, he was the only person available to help Mary with the delivery. There is no reason to think that Joseph had ever been present at a birth before, or that he had any clue what to do to assist Mary. He surely had no idea what to do if something went wrong, which had to be on his mind and Mary's.
After a long and painful labor Mary gives birth to a screaming baby boy with blueish hands and feet. She does not wrap him in swaddling cloths and plop him down in a manger straight away. Joseph wipes him off as best he can, and Mary puts him on her chest, where he tries his first feeble attempts at nursing. Contrary to the happy pictures we see, Mary is covered in sweat, if she's anything like my wife she's popped a few blood vessels in her cheeks or eyes, and she's utterly exhausted, but at the same time ecstatic.
This is what I think Jesus Christ's birth was really like. Scary, difficult, and not at all according to the normal plan. But such is life, and if Jesus is to have experienced all that man has to go through, I can't imagine a more fitting way for it all to start.
And then some random shepherds scrambled into the stable in the middle of the night.