That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of Mary and Joseph’s ninety mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the Roman census. That trek is equivalent traveling from here to Falls River, Massachusetts by foot or by animal.
Ninety exhausting miles.
As Joseph and a very pregnant Mary plodded one foot in front of the other, their hamstrings ached, their backs were sore and their arms wearied from leading the pack animals. They fantasized about what it would be like to finally arrive Bethlehem … with a warm bed and hot food. As they continued, they wondered if they would ever get to Bethlehem. Sometimes their trip felt endless. When an angel had first appeared to Mary and foretold the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had both thought things would be different – like Mary would be treated with reverence or at least been allowed to get out of this whole traveling to Bethlehem thing. But here they were, dressed in dirty, ragged clothing, plodding through the wilderness fantasizing about food and beds.
Just like any other dirty, smelly pilgrim.
It was ironic that their child’s name was supposed to be Jesus, which meant salvation, because Joseph and Mary could use some salvation right about now, salvation from the bone-crushing weariness, salvation from the monotony of their days, salvation from the oppressive Roman empire, salvation from their fellow human beings who were full of judgment and condescension at Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, salvation from the despair that gripped their hearts that nothing would ever get better. As they endured the endlessness of their trek, the sun began to set as the sky darkened into a navy blue speckled with stars. Normally they would have stopped, but the moon illuminated their path and they could tell … they were so close to reaching Bethlehem … the houses came into view just as Mary, in all of her exhaustion, began to feel contractions.
They knocked on the door of the first house that they reached; all the rooms were full. Taking sympathy on Mary and Joseph, the owner told them that they could stay in the room that shelters the animals. The night deepened as they made their way to the animal room.
“This is not what I expected,” Joseph remarked.
“You’re telling me,” gasped Mary, her labor pains increasing, until at last, Mary gave birth to a baby named Jesus. Joseph handed Mary the baby in a simple cloth, and she held him close to her own heart as her weariness subsided, as she beheld Unfettered Love who squirmed in her hands and lit up the night.
God made flesh.
Come down to earth.
To tell us that we are not alone.
We are never ever alone, not when we are weary, not when we lost in the monotony of our days, not when we want to throw the towel in, not when injustice surrounds us on every side, not when our heart is breaking into a thousand pieces, not when our journey seems endless.
God with us.
What Mary and Joseph had wanted was a comfortable bed, but what they got instead was a God who stepped right into their hardships. Even now, God steps into the struggles of our lives, the ones that we don’t necessarily write about in our holiday cards. God steps into the exact places that keep us up at night and tells us: I love you and I am with you, no matter what life brings.
Love made flesh at the deepest hour of the night.
The angels share this good news with the local shepherds who were keeping night watch by turns over their sheep. Like Joseph and Mary, the shepherds had watched the sun dip below the horizon and the sky deepen into a navy blue. Sleepily, the shepherds had split up the shifts as they watched the sheep nestled in for the night. Then some slept, others watched, staying alert for predators … jackals …. hyennas … wolves… they were ready.
The shepherds watched the stars sparkle and the moon shine down when suddenly, during the third shift, a bright light appeared in the sky. The shepherds fell back in fear. What was this? They had stayed alert but they didn’t know quite what they were witnessing …
A figure appeared and began to speak … it was … an angel? It said, “You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – news of great joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in David’s city, a savior – the Messiah – has been born to you.”
The shepherds looked on startled, while an entire multitude of angels appeared praising God, “Saying Glory to God in high heaven! And on earth, peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”
I imagine that eventually, the shepherds joined in, saying:
Glory to God who appears during the third shift when weariness has overcome our bodies!
Glory to God who slips into the places that keep us up at night and the night itself to bring us light!
Glory to God who transforms our fear to understanding, our resentment into tenderness!
Glory to God as Christ who shows up to unbind us from shackles, to set us free, to teach us, to heal us and to dance among the crowds!
Glory to God as Christ who shows up in the griminess and ordinariness of our lives and says, “I love you. I will never leave you or forsake you. You are mine.”
In that moment, the weariness falls from the shepherds and they rush to see Jesus, Jesus who coos and gurgles and welcomes them into the greatest love story of all time. Perhaps the Christmas story did not turn out as expected – and yet amidst mundane happenings and messy surroundings, the Light of Christ is born into our aching lives.
The Light of Christ seeps into the exhausted nooks and crannies of our soul as we discover that there is enough, enough Love, enough Light, enough beauty, enough kindness, enough hope, enough room at the inn. And so we crowd around the manger with the all of creation, proclaiming: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all humankind.”