It was an ordinary night.
If you stop to think about it, how could it have been anything else? Days and nights proceed in a generally predictable fashion. Things happen in this world. Some of those things take your breath away, true, but most of the time even the most remarkable, awe-inspiring experiences we have are not unique to us, but are common to all people.
Babies are born every day, and people take their last breaths. Business people make and lose fortunes. Somewhere, someone’s jaw drops in awe at the sight of a perfect sunrise or sunset. Young men and women make love for the first time. A worker is hired for her first job, and an older man retires. People discover, in a hard conversation with a doctor, that they have serious health problems. Travelers get on buses, trains, and planes, truck drivers transport goods on their routes, policemen patrol their beats, and emergency workers respond when the alarms sound.Â Somewhere, a young person reads a book and is carried by imagination into another land. This is the way of all flesh.
We wake up, take care of our personal hygiene, eat, drink, move about, work, play, interact with others. All over the world, our cultural differences aside, we approach life in remarkably similar ways. Human life proceeds along its ordinary paths day after day after day. It is an exceedingly rare day when the heavens open, the dove descends, and the Unseen One speaks. Most days, it’s just life.
On the day Jesus was born, how many other babies were born into this world? And what, if anything, would have looked different about his birth? If you and I had been there to witness it, I doubt that we would have observed anything other than the normal process that humans everywhere experience. Labor pains hurt. The grimaces on Mary’s face and her doubled-over frame would have testified to that. The anxiety on Joseph’s face would have been more than evident. The normal customs and procedures for childbirth in that day would have been followed, and everyone would be hoping and praying that mother and child would make it through, healthy and sound.
How long was her labor? We do not know. Did she scream in pain? I would guess she did. We can be sure there was water, blood, and mucus. Scratchy straw and blankets provided an imperfect bed. The pungent smells of farm animals, feed, and muck would have assaulted their nostrils in the cave or outbuilding where they were forced to stay. How many others were present to help? We don’t know, but given the culture of the day, we can assume that some women assisted Mary, and that the men who were there kept their distance and paced nervously while awaiting the outcome. Perhaps they tended a fire outside and heated some water to use in the birthing process.
Despite the cradle hymn we sing, the “little Lord Jesus” surely cried upon entering this life and sucking in the sharp air of that drafty room. And Mary then surely took her newborn to her bosom and comforted him. Joseph must have felt so close to his bride as they gazed in wonder at the sight. How many have treasured that intimate moment!
A man, a woman, and a babyâ€”this is nothing but the ordinary course of life. How often has it happened in the history of the world? It can’t be that anything looked, sounded, or felt unusual that night. If you or I had been there recording the event, we would have captured ordinary people experiencing what folks have always knownâ€”anticipation, fear, pain, concern, intense effort, relief, exhilaration, peace. And love. Real human tears were shed. Perspiration dampened human skin and hair. Mother, father, and child lay together exhausted and serene.
It was all so normal, so natural, so ordinary. Now, it is certainly true that this particular couple had to overcome some unique circumstancesâ€”Mary and Joseph were away from their home, forced to have their baby in an unusual birthing roomâ€”but plenty of others have had to deal with situations that were less than ideal when it came time for a baby to be born. Would anyone there have suspected that this particular birth event was anything other than an ordinary family experience? I don’t see how. Mary and Joseph had inside information, of course, but there is no indication that they were talking about that with others at this point. I suspect that they themselves were still trying to come to grips with what it all meant.
What they experienced that night had nothing to do with angels, a Voice from the divine throne room, ethereal music filling the skies, or the appearance of a visible star-sign in the heavens. Despite our traditional way of combining the Christmas texts into manger scenes, no exotic royal guests arrived on camels with lavish gifts to lay before the infant’s bed. Despite the pious art that has so beautifully made visible the hidden significance of this birth story by picturing haloed characters in a stable aglow with the heavenly light of cherubim and seraphim, the actual experience was likely as raw and human and earthy as can be imagined.
It was just an ordinary night. A woman had a baby, and she and her husband were happy.
But then, as Mary, Joseph, and their newborn son lay together resting, they heard a commotion outside. Through the door burst a group of unkempt men, excitedly announcing that they had heard Good News from heaven.
And nothing was ever ordinary again.