March 26, 2017

An Ordinary Night

By Chaplain Mike

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.  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 baby—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 known—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 circumstances—Mary and Joseph were away from their home, forced to have their baby in an unusual birthing room—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.

Comments

  1. Beautiful, Chaplain Mike.

    Sometimes I wish I could see into the past and see things as they happened. But it’s possible that my imagination is better than my seeing the reality. Jesus may actually have alluded to something like that when he said it was better for those who never saw him but believed anyway, or something to that effect.

    That first photo you used is from the movie The Nativity, correct? I haven’t seen it in a while, but I think it was quite well done, except that I wish they had given Mary a few more lines. She seemed so passive, but in reality, I think she was likely anything but passive. But that is just my opinion.

  2. The Catholic Church assures us that Jesus emerged painlessly, without damage to Mary’s hymen.

    • I’m not a Catholic, Werner, but I desperately hope you are mistaken…

      • Dan Crawford says:

        I’d never heard of gynecological doctrine before. And the point of arguing that “Jesus emerged painlessly without damage to Mary’s hymen”? Was a physician on hand to certify her virginity? (Frankly, I’ll take the word of the angel Gabriel and leave it at that.) On the other hand, Simeon predicted that Mary would know heart-wrenching pain.

        I’m afraid, weak creature that I am, I may spend the rest of this Christmas eve wondering what happened (or didn’t happen) to Mary’s hymen.

        • what a strange, but interesting, consideration. and this is actually taught somewhere? or is it merely implied? i was raised Catholic but never was taught this. of course, i went to parochial school so sex ed was somewhat, well, ‘minimal’… 🙂

        • Oddly enough, in the mediaeval Mystery Plays, there’s often the legend of the midwives who attended the birth, and one who disbelieves in Mary’s virginity, so her hand is withered for her scoffing.

          it would seem that there’s a long and involved history to this, and part of it is once again to do with the early centuries when Christological heresies were springing up like weeds; denial of Mary’s virginity or the Virgin Birth were to do with denial of Christ’s divinity. Mark Shea has a long post from a commenter on exactly this point:

          http://markshea.blogspot.com/2010/12/i-stand-corrected.html

          I was also aware that the argument concerned the “Curse of Eve”, that is, the Biblical verse in Genesis 3:16 “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

          The proposition being that, as Eve’s disobedience brought forth the pains of childbirth, so Mary’s obedience and the advent of our redemption in the Incarnation meant that her childbirth was painless.

          Me, I have no strong opinion one way or the other; there are certainly ways in which the hymen can be ruptured without sexual intercourse and the woman remains a virgin, so I hold to the Virgin Birth and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, but I’m not too fussed about the gynaecology of the event.

          • I can well imagine that, in a day when a woman’s virginity was proven by an intact hymen and if it were not intact, it would be taken as proof that she was sexually active, someone might have set forth the teaching we’ve been talking about here.

            I hope everyone realizes that I posted a strong post honoring Mary the other day, but in my view this kind of speculation goes too far. I think we just want to be careful here. Whether one holds to perpetual virginity or not, we must not come to a position where Mary is less human than her Son!

            In my view, speculative doctrines like that work against the very thing I am trying to communicate in this post. It was an utterly human experience.

          • I agree, Chaplain Mike, that the actual giving birth to Jesus was an “utterly human experience.” But you know that I am not a very good Catholic, theology-wise. I am one who thinks that Mary did not have to be conceived without original sin (the Immaculate Concemption) in order for her to be a proper vessel to be Jesus’ mom. I LIKE the fact that God chose human beings with all their human-ness to have Jesus come to the world. Now, I know that Mary was “full of grace” as that is the way that the angel greeted her. And I know that I am NOT full of grace, so I don’t consider myself to be comparable to Mary. No way. Not gonna happen. She was specially chosen for some reason and God knows that reason. She was the perfect mother for Jesus and I honor her for the incredible part she played in bringing the Savior of the world to us. (Discussion of “original sin” I will save for another day.)

        • Well, if it went anything like Monty Python’s “Life of Bryan,”

          “Excuse me, miss…? Are you a virgin?”

          “Well I never…!” (slams window shutters)

          (Onlookers nod to one another.)

    • Have never read that, but if that’s the position, it is perilously close to docetism—denying the full humanity of Christ and his experience of all things human, save sin.

    • Easy, folks. Pretty sure that was sarcasm, a comment on the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

      • The Catholic Cathechism DOES say that Jesus came from Mary without damaging her hymen. I think it is unfortunate that it says that. I think Mary gave birth to Jesus in the same way all women do. The article in the cathechism says: ” The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth ‘did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.’ And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the ‘Ever-virgin.’ “

  3. Mike, I am so glad to see your writing become even more beautiful and evocative.

    Your piece reminds us that God almost always works through the small and silent. This is a great comfort to us who feel like our offering to God is more like the stumbling intrusion of the Shepherds than the golden gift of the Magi.

  4. Beautiful. True.

    Thank you for sharing this

  5. David Cornwell says:

    And the world will never again be the same.

    Chaplain Mike, your writing gets better and better. Than you.

  6. Denise Spencer says:

    Beautiful, Mike. Thank you so much.

    I hope you’re acquainted with Andrew Peterson’s “Labour of Love” from his album “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Great minds think alike, you know.

    You and Gail have a blessed Christmas.

  7. It was to shepherds watching their flocks at nite that the angel appeared along with the hosts of heaven. That sight should have lit up the countryside sufficiently so that it could have been seen in Jerusalem. That’s just my imagination at work…

    But it was the working class 3rd shift guys out on the hills of the local area that receive the divine declaration first! The more I ponder that small factoid in the overall story, the more I like the way God orchestrated it… 🙂

  8. Thank you for this beautiful and true reminder. Sometimes the story gets so dressed up this time of year that we forget. Thanks be to God that He condescends to meet us in the ordinary.

  9. I love the verse found in John 1. “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

    • Wonderful, too, is that the Greek word translated “dwelt” is the same that the Greek version of the Old Testament used for the tabernacle. In fact, I think one English version translates that “the word became flesh and tabernacled among us”. Both Jesus and the tabernacle are the way God dwelt with His people.

  10. In the descrptions about life don’t forget the “Christians” waiting for a God they want – a God they are expecting. Also don’t forgot those who were driven from the church becuase of confessed sin, Pharisee encounters, the fact that they might deal with homosexuality, or their child chooses a different path and the congregation hold the parents responsible.

    Maybe it’s me…but I don’t see Christianity as a hope filled religion, just an opportunity to rise and use one’s status to attack another one’s sin. Again… I wonder where is the redeption in Christianity? I have to say that it doesn’t exist.

  11. Dear Chaplain Mike:
    Thank you for this beautifully written essay.
    Yes, your writing is eloquent and illustrative – this reader thanks you for that.

    Merry Christmas to you and your wife, the whole imonk Team, and especially to Denise Spencer and her family.

    Peace.

  12. Echoed my feelings upon the Christmas season perfectly.

  13. What a wonderful article! I really like how you put His birth into perspective as being one of (possibly) many that day… and “ordinary” birth that, underneath, was something extraordinary!

    🙂 Mags
    everydayplaces.blogspot.com