Earlier this month our church used a Wednesday night to experiment with a more contemplative form of worship. Calling it “Christmas Quiet,” our pastors led us in prayer, meditation, and song. It culminated in Pastor Mark asking us to reread one of Christianity’s most familiar texts using a technique that is both old and, to most evangelical Protestants, rather new: lectio divina. (Specifically, Mark drew on the Benedictine version of the discipline.) Slowly, deliberately, he read Luke 2:1-7 three times, each time giving us a gentle prompt meant to encourage a more prayerful, imaginative encounter with the text. Which word caught your attention? Which verse? Then finally, imagine yourself as someone in the story.
Give it a try:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Others in our congregation shared that they saw themselves as the innkeeper, having to turn Mary and Joseph away. Or as an anonymous one of the “all” who were moving about the province for the registration. I don’t recall anyone being bold enough to imagine themselves the Christ child, but some saw themselves as animals in the stable — or even as the manger itself.
Who would I be in this familiar story? Perhaps Augustus, scarce realizing that a minor expression of his imperial power would play a role in “[bringing] down the powerful from their thrones, and [lifting] up the lowly” (Lk 1:52). My mind then started to turn to Joseph, a fellow father who — if he was anything like me — would have been preoccupied with the stress of traveling as a family. (For a fuller reflection on Joseph’s role in this drama, see Monday’s terrific post by Covenant pastor Jo Ann Deasy — H/T Katie Thostenson.)
But I ended up imagining myself as Mary. As a new mother wrapping her son “in bands of cloth.”
No doubt that’s partly because the last two months have seen reminder after reminder that our own children are growing up. Now five years old, they’ve been to a kindergarten fair and acted in their last preschool Christmas program just in the last month. It’s getting harder and harder for them to cuddle with me in the big rocking chair in our living room. They’re so very different from the babies that I once swaddled in bands of cloth…
And yet I remember so clearly the feelings of terror and responsibility, that two lives so fragile were entrusted to my care. And the feelings of peace and love, as I grew into the joy of that calling.
At the same time, I took in the scene in a way that Mary could not have. Standing on the other side of the Cross, I saw a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger and thought of a man wrapped in linen and laid in a tomb. The same soul that magnified the Lord would eventually be pierced with a sword, but Mary had not yet heard Simeon’s prophecy.
All she knew was the angel’s promise: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:33). And paradoxically, it was true. Because of a life that began in Bethlehem and ended on Calvary, the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And truly, he shall reign forever and ever.