THE WEEK BEFORE
by John C. Miller
When these pages reach your hands, we will be close to celebrating one of the most beloved and important holidays of Christianity. While reading this, my hope is that you may be able to vividly relive the week before Christmas Day, and perhaps, like me, may be able to identify with the characters involved.
An angel, Gabriel, erupted into the life of a very young girl with a message that troubled her. Naturally, it was a disturbing message, especially since she received it from no less than an angel! She was a very young girl, probably no more than fifteen years of age. (They used to marry very young in those days.)
A salutation preceded the message: And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. A message followed, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David; and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:28,30-35).
As for what followed, we can set our imagination free: the thoughts that bubbled up in Mary's mind, the encounter and joy shared with Elizabeth, and the glorious song of praise that emerged from her cousin's heart.
Preparations were made
Now, let's rush back through time... The nine months were coming to an end and Mary had everything prepared: the socks knitted and all the baby's clothing ready. What about the cradle? It was the best thing that Joseph had ever made in his carpentry career. The midwife had already been chosen and so had the godmother. And everyone knows that when a woman is about to have her first baby, the future grandmother can not be absent; she must be present!
What about the baby's name? In this case, neither Mary nor Joseph picked it. A messenger from heaven announced His name and sex to Joseph. An ultrasound was quite out of the question of course; they were not living in the 20th Century! He would be named Jesus, because He would redeem the world from sin.
What about the nursery for the expected son? Oh! Certainly it had to be neatly painted and beautifully decorated in the best way a good mother could do in those days. During the course of nine months, one can plan and dream of many, many things.
The time was drawing closer. Everything seemed to be ready, until a decree went out from Caesar Augustus commanding everyone, without exception, to register for the Roman census at the place of his birth. This meant Joseph had to travel from Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to the city of David in Judea, called Bethlehem. Nazareth is approximately 145 kilometers from Bethlehem.
In those days there were no buses, trains or airplanes. One had to travel by foot, or on the back of a mule, donkey, or camel. I've tried riding on a camel in that land, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone! What an unfortunate situation! The decree could not have been given at a more inconvenient time!
I can easily imagine the dialogue between Mary and Joseph.
"Mary," said Joseph, "We have to go on a journey."
"What!? That's crazy!" was Mary's startled reply. "Travel in my condition?"
"Yes, we must travel."
"And what will happen to my son? His life may be in danger!"
Those of you who are mothers can easily better my imagination in this situation. What a crisis that young girl had to face! Her world was shattered! All her dreams while Jesus was in her womb... of something beautiful about to happen to her, suddenly turned into a nightmare. A strange town awaited her. The new plan did not allow for her midwife to be with her. Neither would her mother be present to help her. She would be vulnerable and unprotected. All her plans and ideas were disrupted. Her idea of how beautiful the birth of Jesus would be... collapsed. Sometimes our world also caves in, just as how in Mary's case, everything turned upside down.
Have you ever tried to walk a long way on a dirt road? If you have done this, then you could add much to this story with regard to the physical troubles involved. Let's think of Mary riding on a donkey. Thank God for donkeys! But, have you ever imagined what an uncomfortable position this was for a woman in her last month of pregnancy? Each step and every movement the animal took meant discomfort and pain for Mary.
Pain, Uncertainty, Fears...
Mary, who had been awaiting something beautiful, was now surrounded by fears. What if the baby was born on isolated roads? I can imagine her dialogue with God, "Lord, this was all supposed to be so wonderful, but instead, everything seems to be so bad! Someone made a mistake! Where is that angel? Where is that grace, glory, bliss, and the feeling I had when You gave me the promise? ...when my bursting heart cried out that psalm with such strength and conviction, My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour (Luke 1:46)."
No, I don't believe Mary recited that psalm while riding on the donkey, or while plodding along the dusty roads, or while climbing up and going down the hills of Judea in the heat. She was in an agony of accumulating fears and worries. This young girl, who was about to give birth through such difficult circumstances, saw nothing glorious, but the world, to this very day, remembers it as a glorious moment. The week before Christmas was the most terrible that she had ever had to go through in all her life. The events prior to seeing the glory, were the most difficult she had ever experienced. Oh, the acid comments of the enemy were not missing. How could they possibly not be present? "Wasn't it you who said, 'My soul doth MAGNIFY the Lord, and my spirit hath REJOICED in God my Saviour'?" No, the Word of God doesn't tell us what her thoughts were; we only know that the week before the most beautiful event in history occurred, this woman passed through her own hell.
Simply remembering the times that my wife and I had to face long journeys to faraway places enables me to have a very graphic picture in my mind of Mary and Joseph's journey. Even with all the comforts that the 20th Century offers, still, how trying and tiring traveling can be! Often with many stops along the way and long interminable hours waiting for airplanes. How many necessary halts did this pregnant woman and her donkey make? I don't know how many days it took to travel those 145 kilometers but maybe we can get an idea by calculating: 2 km/hr for 145 km is more or less 72 hours. If we calculate 10 hours a day on the road, it took them approximately seven or eight days to make the journey. That's not taking into account the stops they had to make.
They had already traveled a long way and the worst was now behind them. Then Mary had an idea, and with it was encouraged. "Joseph, when we get to Bethlehem, take me to an inn... any inn. I want to have a shower and a bed. Did you hear me? Any inn!" What a comforting thought!
When she caught a glimpse to the entrance of the city, Mary
put behind her those wretched seven or eight days - days of
fear... terrible days! They arrived at the first inn. "At
least this inn will rest my bones. Thank You Lord, the trial is
over! I thought I would never make it," said Mary to
herself. Then Joseph, after making the necessary inquiries at the
inn, came back and said, "Don't dismount, Mary."
"There's no room."
The city was overcrowded with visitors, but perhaps they might be luckier at the next recommended inn. Once again, Mary spoke to herself, "Very well, Lord, I'm doing this for You, but this is as far as I go!" Joseph returned to Mary with another negative report. All accommodations were taken up. The heralded Son of God had no place to be born. Is it possible that God didn't book a place for the birth of His Son? He did ... but not in the place or the way that Mary expected.
Mary reaches her limit
Luke 2:6 tells us: ...,while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. Her placenta broke! "Please God, don't do this to me! There's no place to go! There's no midwife! Lord, after all, didn't I GLORIFY You! It can't be that after following You I have a reward like this!"
I'm taking the risk with these conjectures of events and feelings prior to the birth of the Son of God. I'm looking at these characters for what they were - vessels of clay - so please, allow me to take this liberty.
In an attempt to encourage Mary, Joseph said, "They told
me that there is a stable."
"A stable. Maybe we will find a little bit of straw and a place for you to lie down."
And it was there, in that stinking stable, that Mary found a place to deliver her precious gift - the Son of God.
Two thousand years later all throughout the week before Christmas, we read about the birth of Jesus. We preach it, we remind our children, grandchildren, and students at Sunday school about it, but we think very little of the pain, anguish, the lack of understanding and fears Mary had to face before the birth of Jesus: the most beautiful event in Mary's life and in the world's history.
And why even think on this other aspect? Because I believe it can teach us a valuable lesson. There are weeks in our lives where everything seems to go wrong, when our hopes and our ideas of how things should be are tempered by pain, anguish, loneliness, and confusion. We think that our encounter with Jesus should be this way or that way. We decorate the room according to the way we think it should be and then, all of a sudden, the little world we have created and hoped for collapses.
If we could have spoken to Mary, we would have said, "Hold on Mary! You have no idea of what's coming! You don't know that shepherds are going to visit you, and some wise men will come bringing gifts for the Child, not to mention the magnificent choir of angels. Hold on, Mary! The entire world is waiting for this great story to develop! It will be talked about forever! Hold on, Mary!"
There was only Mary, her husband Joseph, and the child that was about to be born. There was no place, no mother, or family to encourage her. Her constant companion - fear. Before leaving for Bethlehem, Mary could not have imagined what was waiting for her - not the long and uncomfortable journey, not the loneliness, nor problem after problem. The most beautiful moment in history was the most difficult moment of her life.
Far beyond the shepherds, the star, the camels, the kings, the gifts and the chorus of angels, perhaps this Christmas will teach you that the week before a visitation from God, or the week before God does a new work in your life, will also be an extremely difficult week. If I could have spoken to Mary, I would have told her to "hold on!" Now let me tell you as well, "Hold on!" You don't know what a wonderful feeling will surge within you, the glory of God that awaits you after this difficult week - the week preceding the birth of the promise that God gave for your life.
Mary, surrounded by the dung of animals, by cows, and goats, was finally indifferent; waiting the moment that everything would end once and for all. If she died, she would die. She gave up all her longings, thoughts, plans... everything. And there, without hot water, in the middle of her groans of pain and desperation, she gave birth to God's Promise. She gave birth to something so beautiful, that even today we say of her, "Blessed art thou among women."
Certainly it was not easy. The work God does in our hearts is great, but it's not easy. It's profound, but it's not easy. The work of God within us tests us to the marrow. One day you will tell your children about your personal Christmas Day, but only God and you will know what the week before Christmas was really like. I hope that you can encourage your soul and know that what God has begun He will finish. He is faithful. What He has promised will be fulfilled. What He has not told us is what the process will be like. If you, like Mary, are today mounted on a donkey, remember that it is only The Week before Christmas. The story did not end there. The best is yet to come!
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