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Christmas carols and cards often romanticize the birth of Christ. But it doesn’t take much consideration of what happened 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem to realize that it was incredibly difficult for the Holy Family.
Traveling over the often rugged territory from Nazareth to Bethlehem was challenging then. It was especially so for Mary, who was nine months pregnant, to ride on a donkey in such a setting.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, the only place they could find to stay was in a primitive stable, probably a nearby cave. No comfort in giving birth there.
Mary and Joseph were also separated from family and friends, who would likely have supported them in many ways had Mary given birth in Nazareth.
This seems a world away from our experiences of childbirth in the developed world, marked by professional medical competence and as much comfort given to mothers as possible. Still, if we consider child birth in our lives prayerfully, it’s possible to make connections between them and the experience of the Holy Family in Bethlehem and have this strengthen our faith.
On Christmas of 2005, my sister, Kelly, her family and my parents were at our house for dinner when my sister announced to us that she was due to give birth to her and her husband’s second child the following June.
My wife Cindy was nine months pregnant at the time with our second child, Raphael. With tears in her eyes, she immediately got up from her seat to give Kelly a hug and share their joy together.
The moment was reminiscent of the happiness that Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth must have shared when Mary visited her when both were expecting the births of their miraculous children.
Twelve days later on Jan. 6, it was time for me to drive Cindy to our hospital to give birth. It was about a 25-minute drive over a crowded city street, marked at that time of the year by many potholes.
I know that every time we hit one, the pain Cindy was already experiencing in her contractions only increased. Could it have been something like the discomfort Mary endured as she rode on a donkey on the mountainous path to Bethlehem?
The pain of Cindy’s labor came to a relatively quick end, though, when she gave birth to Raphael about an hour after our arrival at our hospital.
When that happened, something of what Jesus told his disciples on the night before he died was renewed in our own experience. He knew they were deeply troubled by the sense of foreboding that marked the Last Supper.
So Jesus told them, “When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world.
“So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (Jn 16:21-22).
Could it be that, sometime as he was growing up, Mary told Jesus about the difficult circumstances of his birth and that he then drew on that reality to give comfort to and strengthen the faith of his disciples in their time of need?
Childbirth is an intense and meaning-laden experience in the human condition. That was true for Christ’s birth in Bethlehem and the birth of all of us.
There are other powerful moments in every human life. Receive the grace that God offers us to see those defining experiences as pathways to come closer to him at Christmas and all through the year. †