As a Christian, it has been my habit every Advent season to stop, unhook from the present festivities and transport myself back to the real Bethlehem that received the Holy Family over 2,000 years ago. I visualize what it was like and how much it differed from the sentimental gloss we’ve put over the birth of Christ as time has passed. I particularly focused on that reality when preparing a public presentation for a friend’s Methodist church group a couple years ago. Just talking about my experiences with cancer and police work didn’t seem like enough to properly serve the Lord right before Christmas.

As I got into it, I was helped by some of my personal life experiences. I’ve walked through deserts in California and Arizona. I’ve tripped over rock and brush as I’ve hiked down trails. I’ve smelled the earth and felt the dry crispness of the air. I imagine what it was like for Joseph to escort a very pregnant Mary to that small backwater village out in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t what he wanted to do. The circumstances he found himself in were far from what he had planned. They both lived in a time and culture where fear dominated their existence. Rome held sway over the population. If you crossed a Roman soldier, you often as not found yourself impaled on the end of a spear. No one filled a complaint or lawsuit on your behalf or your family’s. But, the anxiety that caused Joseph to sweat under his robes must have been peaking. A wife heavy with a child who was not of his flesh; haunted by dreams filled with vivid messages from entities that claimed to be from God; miraculous promises regarding the unborn child; callused looks and disparaging remarks from friends and family…

And then a trip to Bethlehem at the behest of untrusted authorities. No reservations for accommodations. No clue where they would stay or who would be available to help if the child came suddenly. Mary perhaps making the best of it, but obviously uncomfortable and anxious in her own right. Was this what God desired? Was this part of His plan?

Over the course of my law enforcement career, I spent many cold winter nights working swing and graveyard shifts during the holiday season. Not everyone is full of cheer and some that are…well, it is often more from their raised blood/alcohol level than the joy of Christmas. Families fight, lives are lost in accidents, drunks wreak havoc, kids get abused, couples break up, lonely people commit suicide, ill people surrender to disease…and the cops get called. You know someone is not having a great holiday when your armed and uniformed presence is the most comforting thing they’ve felt all day…or night. If I was lucky, things would calm down about three o’clock in the morning and I’d cozy up to a hot cup of coffee while standing in a darkened parking lot under a starry sky and enjoy some conversation with one of my beat partners.

So I can imagine what Mary and Joseph walked into when they arrived in that strange town in the desert. Dust and dirt kicked up all around. People were stumbling through there rustic lives, quite oblivious to the miracle in their midst. No one knew it was the first Christmas and if they did, they likely would have dismissed it. Life was hard and not everyone looked at the birth of another child as a blessing…especially when it was not of his or her kin. It was all anyone could do to just keep their heads above the fray and survive day to day. Wastewater would be dumped in the streets at their feet. People would push past them, intent on their business and unmindful of the pregnant woman or her concerned spouse. Depressing? Well, yeah. After all, it makes sense that Christ would make his appearance when the need for his presence was acute.

Scripture says that the Holy Family found their way to a manger. Probably the combination of a cave and a lean-to. Animals are competing for room. The smell of scattered straw is mixed with the odor of manure. And Mary goes into labor. Great! Hopefully they had some help with the delivery. Otherwise, Joseph was on his own…again. A trough becomes a crib. I’ve read where some have compared the wood of that crudely made frame with the rough-hewn cross He was nailed to 33 years later. Jesus never caught a break. But, there stands Joseph…trying to keep Mary comfortable and warm as she recuperates and looking at the child that has been prominent in his mind for months. What was going through his mind at the time? Probably something similar to, “Now what?” Ultimately it had to be a matter of first-things-first.

So, as I pull out of my reverie and return to the decorated tree, the lights, the TV specials, the old movie favorites, the extra food and gathering of loved ones, I thank God for His blessings. I’m retired now. No more graveyard shifts and answering emergency radio calls. I’m still painfully aware of the suffering around the world and the problems we all continue to struggle with, but I push it aside and make room for the joy I find in family traditions, the smile on my wife’s face, the companionship of my grown sons and the excitement of my grandsons as they descend on wrapped presents.

Ultimately, I’m better for the few moments of quiet holiday devotion. If nothing else, I’m thankful I won’t be forced to sleep in a stable or scuff my skin across splintered wood…someone already did that for me a long time ago.

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