1. Shared by, coming from, or done by two or more people, groups, or things. (Lexico.com)
1. A feeling that something is the case. A faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus; one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. (Lexico.com)
A shared knowledge derived from our personal and collective senses. (bertrim.ca)
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In the 14th century the English mystic Julian of Norwich found herself troubled by the sin in the world. She famously saw a vision of Jesus responding to her pain with the words, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Sounds deep but strangely reassuring – probably appropriate for someone like Julian who was a professional vision-haver.
When we read the narrative of Jesus’ birth we are left with the feeling that his parents had a common sense about their circumstances: darkness surrounds us, but all will be well.
The biblical record tells us Mary and Joseph were young and still not legally married when Mary had a miraculous visit from an angel who informed her that she had been chosen to have a divine baby form inside her. Life became rather complicated when Joseph learned this because … well, you know … he wasn’t the father. It took a vivid dream from God to convince him of what he must reluctantly do: marry her in spite of his hurt and embarrassment.
So as the story progressed, Mary found some comfort when she visited her close relative Elizabeth who, as it turned out, was also pregnant. So there is lots of pregnant talk, babies leaping in wombs and such, in the early chapters of the story.
Later Mary gave birth to baby Jesus and somehow we developed the traditional, sanitized nativity scene: Jesus in an X-shaped manger, Mary holding him, Joseph watching close by, an array of angels, shepherds, hay, and farm animals politely filling in the background. Oh, and a star.
Human, like you
But let me remind you again that it wasn’t quite like that. Mary and Joseph were fully human and no stork delivered the baby.
Mary and Joseph were real people in a real place and time – a dangerous place and a dangerous time. They were not wealthy, they were not privileged, and they lived under the oppression of one of the most totalitarian empires in history. That fact would later be underlined when they had to flee to Egypt to save young Jesus from Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’.
Something you will have trouble finding in classic religious art is a picture of the Virgin Mary while she was pregnant. First of all, photographs from the first century are pretty rare… Nevertheless, I’ve never seen a medieval or renaissance painting of Mary rubbing her belly or showing tiredness in her face. No signs of morning sickness or swelling.
There were many reasons for this but primarily it was the historical view that pregnancy was a private matter, whispered quietly and covered by loose clothing. This was especially true of the commemoration of Mary after her 4th century veneration by the church.
But imagine just a few of the gritty, earthy birth details that are rarely talked about:
- Mary was probably only 14 or 15 years old;
- The pregnancy was scandalous, making them social outcasts, even shunned by their family;
- …Embarrassment, fear, loneliness…
- They traveled while she was pregnant. IF they had a donkey, Mary likely walked anyway;
- The ‘manger’ would have been where the animals were kept, in the dark lower level of a stone house;
- …Dust, unable to sleep, exhaustion…
- Since they were poor, Mary would have given birth standing up, without the benefit of a birthing stool;
- She would have taken a ceremonial purifying bath afterward (mikvah);
- …Cold drafts, inconveniences, away from home…
- ‘Swaddling cloths’ are not receiving blankets, they are pieces of cloth;
- Of course he cried, he was a baby and diapers needed changing;
- … Voices of well-wishers, bearded father kissing his forehead, salty tears, whispered prayers…
- There is no evidence the angels sang to the shepherds in the fields – they were simply ‘praising God’;
- Oh, and shepherds were the lowest of the low on anybody’s social scale;
- …Shepherds smell bad. Really bad…
- The baby would have been circumcised eight days later … yes, that circumcision;
- More baby crying;
- …Senses alive – eyes connected, a cry of hunger, a mother’s milk, skin on skin, gentle rocking, falling asleep…
But read the story
Go ahead, read in Matthew about Joseph’s decision to embrace Mary and their circumstances. Read the birth story in Luke and remember that Mary herself was likely a source for the writer.
When you read them you will feel it. There’s something calm and beautiful covering this dangerous and stressful event in the lives of the young couple. The stresses and pain are inferred but we do not feel overcome by them. Every scene, every character, reinforces our sense that the darkness is heavy but will not win.
I suppose the serenity of the nativity is why our pictures, creches, and church plays have always been quaint, warm, peaceful.
Joseph and Mary couldn’t predict the outcome of their circumstances but they demonstrated their common sense that all would be well while they were in the centre of God’s will.
Because you see, the centre of God’s will is where we find peace on earth.
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The Magnificat (Mary’s Song)
Earlier in Luke we find The Magnificat, also known as Mary’s Song. It is a classic piece of literature that speaks of Mary’s confidence in God and is a beautiful reminder of where her common sense was seated. It is joyful, confident, and I recommend it to you as a prayer.
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.” – Luke 1:46-55 (NLT)