Have you watched the news lately?
I keep thinking about the story of a 14-year-old girl who was fleeing a violent Middle Eastern dictatorship.
She was pregnant and traveling with her fiancé. A new law had forced them to travel a hundred kilometers for official government registration. They arrived homeless, jobless, and poor.
Without medical care, she gave birth in a barn.
Then, the father heard that the military was coming to massacre children in the area, as a way of cracking down on a rumored rebel leader. If the young family left immediately, they could find safety in another country. Under cover of night, the couple and their newborn began a trip of nearly 700 kilometers, on foot, over deserts and mountains.
This is the story of Mary, Joseph, and the birth of Jesus.
If you hadn’t noticed that fleeing refugees are an integral part of the Biblical Christmas story, let me point out other elements of the story to think about in the New Year.
The Age-Old Story
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Mary was only 14 years old when she became pregnant. We don’t know her age exactly — she may have been 15, or 13 — yet she was chosen to be the mother of Christ.
Two other people in Jesus’ story are Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke tells of an angel visiting Zechariah to announce his wife’s upcoming pregnancy. In disbelief, he responded, “I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Yet they were chosen to be parents of John the Baptist, the prophet who would proclaim Christ’s coming.
In other words: Mary was not too young, and Zechariah and Elizabeth were not too old. They were chosen regardless of age.
As we enter the new year: do we think that our years hold us back from being part of something big?
Do we hold back others simply because of their age?
Culture and Purpose
The story is clear: knowing she was unwed, God made Mary pregnant anyway.
To those around her, Mary’s condition was a violation of religious law that deserved death by stoning. If not killed, she would at least become a social outcast.
By taking a pregnant girl as his wife, Joseph took his own risks. He either had to publicly accept her and her child, thus taking on some of her reputation; or he had to claim the he was the father, to similar ruin.
These two risked social standing, and even life and livelihood, for faith in a greater plan.
In other words: Christmas is a story of God intentionally breaking religious law and cultural tradition to bring the Messiah into the world.
And it is a story of people on a mission that others could not see and did not understand.
As we enter the new year… how often do we measure other people by our own rules and traditions? Do we only choose paths in life that conform to culture, even if we feel led otherwise? Do we only accept and support people when they fit neatly within our own expectations?
Diff’rent Strokes, Diff’rent Folks
In Luke, an angel told shepherds that they could find the newborn Messiah in a nearby town.
He said: “You will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” A manger is an animal feeding trough which, to shepherds, would be an everyday object.
Matthew wrote that a group of foreigners arrived some time later, asking, “Where is the newborn king? We saw his star.” Traditionally, we call these people “wise men” or “Magi,” though the original text simply says “magicians.” To these magicians, stars were well-known objects that they regularly studied.
One group was given a manger to find, while the other group was given a star. Though wildly different from each other, each sign was familiar and particular to the people who received it, with a common final destination.
As we enter the new year, I wonder: do we ask other people to achieve goals in only one specific way?
How do we feel when they do things differently than we would, even when the end result is essentially the same? Do we judge others by their journeys, or by their destinations?
This past year has been a dark roller coaster, with twists we didn’t see coming. Many people are looking ahead to the next year with either cautious hope, or paralyzing fear.
The Christmas story itself indicates that Jesus didn’t come to Earth in a simple, easy manner, with promises of security and carefree living. It is a story of risk and threat, of broken tradition, and finally of new life and hope.
In the end, the story reflects back on us.
Who will we be this year? How will we treat others? How will we treat ourselves? Will we define ourselves and others by age, by religion, by tradition, by process or outcome?
The questions of the Christmas story are worth asking all year long.
This piece originally ran on Medium
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