Hespeler, 23 December 2018 © Scott McAndless
Romans 8:18-25, Luke 2:1-7, Psalm 80:1-7
he Gospel of Luke is the only one to give us any sort of description at all of what it was like. But I am afraid that it just doesn’t answer many of the questions that I wonder about. Luke says that they made a long trip – and I mean a very long trip. It is over 100 km from Nazareth to Bethlehem and with ancient modes of transport and political and physical barriers, it would have taken weeks to travel so far. He also seems to say that they arrived there when M ary was just about ready to deliver her baby – at least, they did not have the time or the means to arrange anything like proper accommodations and Mary was forced to lay her newborn in a feeding trough.
      We all know that story, but it has always raised lots of questions for me – questions like, how on earth did Mary (who must have been somewhere between eight and nine months pregnant) manage such a long, arduous and dangerous journey in such a state? I know that Christian tradition, concerned for Mary’s safety and comfort, has very helpfully supplied her with a donkey to ride. That is nice, though I’m not sure that I would say that the back of a donkey makes for the most comfortable and smooth ride.
      But I would note that, while tradition was thoughtful enough to supply a donkey, the author of the gospel, didn’t give any thought to what Mary might have needed in order to make such a journey. He mentions nothing at all about a donkey. In fact, he kind of gives me the impression that he thought Mary walked the whole way. But however she travelled, on foot or on donkey back, I can’t imagine it being easy. How did she manage the extra weight, the nutritional requirements of “eating for two” and the early contractions? On these issues, Luke is completely silent.
      And there would have been an even bigger question that weighed upon her during all that time: what about the birth? This was Mary’s first child and having a child – especially a first child – was about the most dangerous moment in any ancient woman’s life. An unthinkable number of women just didn’t survive it. And yet, here she was, coming to a place where she had no family support, where she wouldn’t have even known who the local midwives were, and she was about to go into labour in what definitely don’t seem to be sanitary conditions. Was she fright­en­ed – terrified? And yet Luke says nothing about her state of mind or body.
      But what else would you expect? This gospel was written by a man – a man who is totally oblivious to the concerns of the only female character in his birth narrative. But maybe that is a bit unfair to poor old Luke. I mean, ancient men in general didn’t care about the trials and tribulations of women. Why should we expect Luke to be any different?
      But is that fair to ancient men? Were they all as ignorant as that about the struggles that women went through? Well, apparently not. Take the Apostle Paul for example. He, by all accounts, never seems to have married and never had any children. He, of all people, should be completely ignorant about the dangers that women faced in childbirth. But apparently he was not. In fact, in our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans he speaks of such things in very direct terms.
      He is speaking about what he calls, the sufferings of this present time.” and even if he’s talking about the troubles of his own particular time, I think that is something that we can all relate to. You see, the promise of Christmas – the promise of Emmanuel – is that God is actually involved in this world. God has chosen not to remain some distant observer looking down upon us from a safe heaven, but has actually entered into the troubles of this world in the person of Jesus Christ.
      But, if that is true, then you might expect that that should change things in the here and now. The world should become a better place, a place where people are dealt with in justice and kindness. But people looked around in Paul’s day and found that things were not so much better. It had been decades – decades mind you – since Christ had died and been raised from the dead and still the world was filled with far too much evil, hatred, injustice and suffering.
      And if they were discouraged, how discouraged should we be? It has not been decades for us, it has been centuries – even millennia – for us and still we look around at the state of the world and are often discouraged. Where is the evidence that the coming of the messiah, the birth of Emmanuel, has changed anything?
      That is the question that Paul is struggling with in our reading this morning from his letter. And what is Paul’s response to that? We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now,” is what he says. He compares the troubles and trials of the present age with the pain and trouble that comes with a woman’s labour when she is bearing a child. And I realize that this is something quite odd for someone like Paul to be saying. I mean, what does he know about labour pains? But that is what he says.
      But let’s just say that Paul did have a way of knowing about the reality that many women face. Let’s take what he is saying here very seriously for a minute. What can the pain of labour teach us about the problems that the world faces and the hope that can be found in the face of them? And, since Christmas is coming, let us think of that in terms of the mother-to-be who is on all of our minds in these days.
      Mary’s entire body shuddered as she let out a low and plaintive moan. She wasn’t sure how she was doing it, how she was even staying on her feet while her husband went to the door and begged whoever was there (Mary no longer cared who it was) to give them a place to stay for the night. At this point, she was beyond caring. It didn’t matter where they ended up. If she had to lay her newborn baby in a manger someplace, she would make that work. All she knew was that this baby was going to come and that it was going to hurt a whole lot before it got there.
      She could have been feeling sorry for herself. She could have been blaming God for putting her through all of this because, apparently, if she was to believe what that stranger had said nine months ago, this had all been God’s idea. Oh, you can bet that she had a few choice phrases to scream out to God every time the contractions hit her. Yes, the pain was terrible, but at least she knew that it had a purpose to it. She knew that it would bring forth something good and beautiful – not only for her and for Joseph but even for the whole world. She just knew that it was true. And because there was a purpose to it, she knew that she would be able to withstand a great deal.
      Mary’s thoughts turned to the other pains of her world that she knew ran deep. She thought of the people in her own village of Nazareth who lived in terrible poverty, of the children who had died the previous dry season simply because there had not been enough food. She thought of the colony of lepers that they had passed in the hills on their journey – their bodies breaking down and their spirits long destroyed. They had seen Roman soldiers laughing about the women that they had raped and officials demanding bribes from travellers like them. All of it was painful in its own way; all of it was just plain wrong. And many times, while they travelled, Mary had cried out to God against the pain that she observed even as she cried out in this moment as she felt another contraction building inside her.
      Mary was learning, through this, her first experience of labour, the truth of something that her mother had once taught her. When the pain struck, there was no point in trying to keep it inside – no point in pretending to be stronger than it by keeping silent. Sometimes you just had to call out and it actually helped to do so. It made it possible to go on.
      She now suspected that the same was true about her reaction to the pain and evil that she observed in the world. It didn’t hurt and it actually helped to cry out against God for these things. There was a good reason why the psalms of her people included many songs of complaint and lament. God wasn’t harmed when people shared what they honestly felt; God could take it and was glad to take it for the sake of the healing of his people.
      But crying out in her labour pains was only one part of how she was learning to deal with them. The other part was the perspective she had gained – the knowledge that, as painful as they were, they were leading to something that had a purpose. And, in her case, that purpose was not just the joy of a new child for her but also a child of hope for the whole world.
      But, she was wondering, was that also part of the answer to dealing with the pain of the world. Was there a possible purpose in that? As painful as it was, was it leading to something that, when you looked back on it after the fact, would maybe not exactly make it worthwhile but would at least give some meaning to it all? Was it possible that, yes, the creation was subjected to futility,” but that this happened for a purpose? Creation was subjected “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.” But why? Why would God do such a thing? There could be only one reason good enough; it had to be for hope. God had to do it “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
      Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that that cannot be good enough. There is so much pain, so much that goes wrong in this world, that it doesn’t really matter what good might come out of it in the long run. To try and justify it away in that way is really just to dismiss the real pain that people suffer from.
      I’m not going to argue with that. I’m not saying that anyone has to buy this explanation. But I do think that Paul, who certainly did experience a great deal of pain for standing up for what he believed was right, came to accept it. I do think that Mary, who not only suffered great pain just to bring Jesus into the world but also suffered a great deal of pain by virtue of being the mother of the man to whom terrible things would happen – I think that Mary came to accept it too.
      And the reason why is not because the exchange is fair. It’s not fair to exchange pain now for the promise of some goodness or freedom later. This isn’t about fairness. But it is about trust. Mary and Paul may not have understood the purpose to be found in the suffering of this present life, but they did learn to place their trust in the God with whom the future lay.
      That trust was all that Mary had left as she waited, in full labour, while Joseph tried to find someplace – anyplace – where the couple could lay down their belongings. She didn’t know what the future held. She didn’t even know if she would live through the night. (The statistics were not on her side.) But she knew in whose hands she was and in whose hands her son’s life was. And that was enough. It might just be always enough.

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