The journey to Bethlehem was long. And arduous. It wasn’t an easy journey for the most prepared travelers – let alone for the least prepared. And the most pregnant. Joseph and Mary had traveled from Nazareth to obey the sudden and immediate decree that required all men to return to their home towns for a census. They were likely among the last to arrive with the slow-going movements of a woman nearing the end of her last trimester and her ever-patient betrothed husband. By the time they arrived to that City of David, so had everyone else. Trying to get in and get out and get on with their lives.
There wasn’t a room to be found anywhere in Bethlehem. Mary didn’t have a bed to lay down on. She didn’t have a place to put her feet up. To clean up after the long journey. And then, while they were there in that little town that was even smaller than Nazareth, her body notified her. It was time.
Finally. Finally. We come to the familiar words. Words that wrap around us like a warm blanket. That we can whisper along to the cadence of the telling. That we can hear in the Linus-voice of the Charlie Brown Christmas.
She brought forth her firstborn son. Delivering that Babe in an unfamiliar town. Surrounded by plenty of strangers and no one familiar to help. She gave birth to Him, and took in the scent of Him, and stared long into His holy face. So this is what You look like, she might have thought, taking in every detail. And after she laid there like that for He knows how long with the rush of feelings that every new mother feels, she took strips of cloth and
she wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger
The cloths were customary for Jewish women to use – wrapping their babies tightly in comfort and protection. Some were even convinced that they helped to strengthen the back and the bones of the newborn babes. And when she had finished wrapping Him, she laid Him down in a crib for fodder. Because the entire town was bursting with people. And they had arrived too late. And there wasn’t a room to be found anywhere. So they were back in one of the stables. And as Joseph shooed the animals away, Mary softened the hay and laid her freshly wrapped Babe down inside the feed trough to sleep on that first holy night.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country, as the night wore on, shepherds were up. Awake. Sitting in the fields with their sheep. Living out there with them under the open sky. Even at night. Keeping watch over their flocks. Guarding them. Protecting them. Taking turns staying up – wide awake against all manners of evil that could creep in and attack their beloved sheep in the darkest parts of the night.
They had no idea what was happening in the other part of the country. No clue that heaven had just come to earth and the first parts of prophecies spoken by holy men and women over hundreds of years had just been fulfilled. They were simply out there doing their job, getting through another night, when it happened.
Gabriel appeared again. Only this time, much more dramatically. Because the highest-top-of-the-tree-Immanuel had just been born. And the angels were singing. And the joy was palpable. The angel burst onto the scene, interrupting their silent night, in a terrifyingly sudden and blindingly bright manner. And as he stood there,
the glory of the LORD shone around them
Illuminating them on all sides and surrounding them with a halo-circle of light. A glorious and bright splendor that was jarring. And jaw-dropping. It wasn’t like someone had lit a candle in the middle of the night. It was as if the entire heavens were lit up right there on that pasture. And they rubbed their eyes and put their hands up to cut the brightness in an attempt to see what, exactly, was happening. And where, exactly, this light that they had never before experienced was coming from. And they were scared. Really scared. Much more than Zacharias was. But then again, Gabriel appeared much more brilliantly and overwhelmingly powerful to those shepherds in the field than he did to that priest inside the temple. He was too excited to contain and conceal his angel-glory.
And as that holy Babe slept in another part of the country, and the landscape around the shepherds shone bright with the glory of God, Gabriel spoke. And he had some mighty news to share. News that would send those shepherds on an impulsive and spontaneous middle-of-the-night journey.