And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6–7)
It’s not been an easy year, and the new restrictions surrounding Christmas have not added much joy. Plans for Christmas gatherings have had to change, and many who expected to be with others now find themselves alone. The newspapers have not helped the mood, either: “PM Cancels Christmas”, “Christmas is Cancelled” and so on.
In the midst of this gloom, it is important to remember that the first Christmas was not particularly straightforward either. News had arrived that a census was to be taken, and censuses were normally the first step towards taxations. Mary, poor heavily pregnant Mary, had to travel the ninety-odd miles from her home to Bethlehem. On a donkey.
When she finally arrived in Bethlehem, there was nowhere for her and Joseph to stay. Pregnant and without a bed she ended up with the animals, and that was precisely the time for her labour to begin. Typical! The baby was born - O precious child! - and had be laid down in a feeding trough.
It is into those desperate circumstances that God came, taking human flesh. When Jesus - Immanuel, ‘God with us’ - was born, he came to the outhouse and not the palace. How often have we discovered that it is precisely in our greatest need that we come face to face with God? How often has suffering been the prelude to a heightened awareness of the presence of God?
Christmas has not been cancelled. It might be subdued or even chaotic, but the Bethlehem outhouse reminds us that Jesus came into the midst of frustrated plans and family turmoil. The name of Christ - Immanuel - reminds us that God is with us, whatever the circumstances.
So God be with you this Christmas, and may you find in Jesus the comfort, presence and abiding joy he came to give.