Over the past few weeks I have attempted to gain a better understanding of the story of Christ’s birth by studying the accounts in Matthew and Luke. This year my study led me to try to imagine the story from the perspective of each of the characters, to try to feel the emotions that they felt and understand what they went through. My hope was that I might better understand the story of the Nativity, or at least better prepare myself for the spirit of Christmas. Below are my observations from this experiment.
My Imagination is Generous
I tried my best to not deviate from the accounts given in the scriptures, but there are sizable gaps in those narratives. The authors had a specific purpose and audience in mind when writing, and their accounts were never intended to be thorough or even chronological. In order for my experiment to work, I had to fill in these gaps with my imagination, and lacking any substantial knowledge of the geography and customs of Israel at the time of Christ’s birth (whether gained by personal experience or academic study), I necessarily filled in the gaps inaccurately. I still think the experiment was worthwhile, though many of the details were certainly incorrect. My purpose was to better understand what Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the angels felt, and I don’t think that my faulty depictions of their circumstances detracted too greatly from that purpose. In any case, it was an interesting and fun experiment.
An Ordinary Birth
As I considered Jesus’ birth from Mary’s perspective, one observation I made is that His birth probably seemed quite ordinary. Mary is described in the biblical accounts as an exceptionally humble person. When the angel appears to her to announce that she will be the mother of the Lord, he greeted her with these words:
Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.(#note-1)
Quite a greeting, especially coming from an angelic messenger. Mary was certainly worthy of the praise, or the angel Gabriel would not have said it. And yet she was “troubled at his saying” wondering “what manner of salutation this should be.” Instead of rejoicing that the angel recognized her goodness, she was troubled, wondering why an angel would say something like that to her. When Gabriel had delivered his message, Mary humbly accepted her role, saying “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
Though the beginning of her pregnancy was filled with miracles, the months of morning sickness, the swelling belly, the aches and pains of pregnancy must have felt quite ordinary. Mary herself, despite her royal lineage, must have felt quite ordinary. The long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the end of her pregnancy must have felt quite ordinary. Standing in crowds and waiting in lines much worse than any modern DMV experience must have felt quite ordinary. The compulsory taxing (or census) would have brought many others to the City of David, and certainly some of those others were also pregnant. Perhaps Jesus was not the only baby born in a stable in Bethlehem in those days of taxing. In a lot of ways, Jesus’ birth was just like the birth of every other person who has ever lived, and that was the point.
A Miracle Birth
Though aspects of Jesus’ birth were ordinary, I think that Mary and Joseph could sense that His birth was a miracle. Both Mary and Joseph saw angels long before they traveled to Bethlehem. After Jesus was born (perhaps the same night), shepherds came to visit them, praising the new born Baby. Some time later, wise men bearing gifts from faraway nations found the young Child, having been guided by a star. Certainly, this was no ordinary Child. Mary seemed to sense this, and “[she] kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
Jesus’ birth was a miracle in many ways. He is Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, the Great I Am, and he chose to come to Earth and live in a mortal body. He lived a perfect, exemplary life. He performed miracles, established His church, and did all that the Father gave Him to do. He gave His life, which no one could take from Him. After three days He returned from the grave, a glorified, resurrected Being. His birth was a miracle because His life was a miracle.
Spending the time I did imagining the Christmas story from the perspective of those who experienced it also helped me in another, unexpected way. I have started to more frequently consider how other people are feeling. I think I’ve got a long way to go before I am a truly compassionate person, but I am grateful that this experience has helped me get a little bit better at it.
One thing I’ve realized about compassion is that it’s not about thinking, “How would I feel if I were in her situation?” That’s a good start, but it doesn’t quite get us all the way there. For instance, the way I would feel is not necessarily the way my wife would feel in a given situation. I think for me to try to understand how my wife feels (instead of how I would feel) comes closer to true compassion.
Part of Christ’s mission on Earth, part of his Atonement, was to experience what we experience so “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.2” In other words, He suffered what we suffer so that He could have compassion. I am grateful that I could become a little bit more compassionate this Christmas season.