Earlier today I visited the home of parishioners who had just finished setting up a nativity scene in their living room. It was prepared with love, beautifully created, and was even illuminated with the manger awaiting the Christ child the most brightly lit part of the stable.
Even in this so-called secular age, there are images, models and other artistic representations of Mary and Joseph with their newborn in many town-centres, stores and homes. A peacefulness pervades these scenes, and a few moments savouring these provides a welcome focus in these days of pre-Christmas busy-ness and end-of-year (at least in the Southern Hemisphere) stresses.
In the presence of a peaceful nativity scene, it is easy to forget all that the reality of these weeks would have been for Mary and Joseph and their new baby. It is a helpful connection with the reality of the incarnation to remember some of the facts surrounding the months both before and after the nativity of Jesus.
- Soon after the conception of Jesus, Mary and Joseph would have faced considerable pressures and the threat of scandal. Imagine the moment when Mary breaks the news of her pregnancy to her parents Anna & Joachim: “Mum, dad, I’m pregnant, but don’t worry, the father is the Holy Spirit.”
- How many young women and men fear breaking this news, or other difficult news to their parents and family?
- In his “Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives”Pope Benedict reminds us that after the conception of Jesus “Joseph has to assume that Mary has broken their engagement, and according to the law he must dismiss her.”
- How many people live today with uncertainty about the future of the relationships with those they love, especially when a tension threatens the security of the relationship?
- As the time for the birth of their child nears, Mary and Joseph have to embark on a journey of 180 km to Bethlehem. According to Pope Benedict the journey was necessary probably because Joseph “had property in Bethlehem, so that he had to go there for tax registration.”
- While it is perhaps rare today to have to undertake an arduous journey immediately before the birth of a child, uncertainty, poverty and threats are all too common in the lives of many expectant parents.
- When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they could find no place to stay.
- Too many parents, even in our own so-called “first-world” countries lack the basic securities of life and live with the threat or reality of homelessness.
- The first visitors to the newborn Jesus and his family were strangers who brought company and gifts. Pope Benedict writes of an “element that has been particularly emphasised by the monastic tradition: the shepherds’ watchfulness. Monks set out to be watchful in this world – in the first place through their nocturnal prayer, but above all inwardly, open to receiving God’s call through the signs of his presence.” Chapter 3
- Today, in the absence of family and friends it is often watchful neighbours, workmates and friends who are sensitive to the needs of newborn children and their parents.
- The visit of the Magi “from the land of sunrise” (ie the East) Ch.4 coincides with the presence of a fatal threat. These visitors knew that King Herod was also aware of the birth of a new king and sought to kill him. Joseph too is asked by the angel of God to quickly head for Egypt with Mary and the newborn Jesus “for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Mt:2:13) So now Joseph, Mary and Jesus embark on a 300km journey to a foreign land.
- Today too a human life is at its most vulnerable in the couple of years after conception. Too easily the threat of disease, hunger, and the fears of parents take away the security that is essential for the healthy development of a child.
For the next thirty-three years, until his tragic death, Jesus was the victim of persecutions, misunderstandings, betrayal, suffering, and death as a criminal. This is good news for us since our lives seem to follow a similar pattern. This is the stuff of earthly human existence.
The powerful reminder of a household nativity scene, is that the reality of God is breaking into our human struggle in every difficult moment. We have nothing to fear since, in every struggle and anxiety, God is with us.
And we know from our past experience that the most wonderful experiences in life are not the moments when we are free of all problems, but when, even in the midst of great worries and burdens, we know that we are loved.