nativity-fullcathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

Most of the cards one gets in this season have peaceful images on them. Snow falls quietly. Horses pull a sleigh across empty fields. A dove sits in a pine tree. Given that December is dark, stormy and frenetic, given how much we long for peace, the cards provide us with a picture of what we desire. Cards that picture the birth of Jesus also give us an image of peace and quiet: in a stable, a mother cradles a sleeping infant with father and animals looking on and a single star in the sky.

The thing is, the events in this story were anything but quiet. Think about it for a moment. Mary has to walk all the way from Galilee to Bethlehem even though she is nine months pregnant. Even if Joseph, her husband-to-be, can afford a donkey, every step of the donkey jars her tired body. Entering the bustling town would be stressful for the young village girl. Finding the inns full would bring fear even before labour began. As the pains intensified, her mind was in turmoil.

After dark, a stable would be calm with the animals bedded down for the night, but birthing is not quiet. Clenched teeth or cries of agony go with the waves of pain. The midwife's instructions are quiet, and the father paces with as few interfering words as possible, but anxiety and pain take over the birthing room until the baby is born, and the mother's bleeding stops.

Then, the newborn baby cries. And there is something needy, demanding about a baby's cry.

The way Luke tells the story the birth is announced to shepherds out in the wilderness. The sheep may be sleeping, but someone is awake guarding against predators. Then, the sky erupts with music. Angels announce the birth with ringing song. Beautiful sounds one assumes, but not quiet.

Matthew is the storyteller who includes foreigners. He tells of magi who see a new star and try to figure out what it means. Again, this is not a quiet story as they spend months debating the meaning of the star. Their journey across the desert would be arduous not calm.

The magi's arrival in Jerusalem sparks a storm of dissent. The king is not pleased. Herod summons knowledgeable religious leaders and demands to know where an heir of David would be found.

The magi move on from the city to the town, and in a house in Bethlehem they find a toddler. Have you ever known a quiet toddler? Two year olds run and play and say, "No!"

What happens next is frightening and disturbing. The magi do not return to Herod; the child's parents are warned to flee. Herod attacks the village viciously seeking to eliminate a potential threat to his power.

Despite the peaceful images on Christmas cards, when we put ourselves into the middle of the Christmas story, we are caught up in fear and pain, ringing voices and argument. The story as told by Matthew and by Luke puts us right in the middle of a tumultuous time in the Roman empire.

For me, this gives the story more reality and a deeper strength. A young unmarried woman is pregnant. She understands that if she is chosen by God, God is turning the standard power structures on their heads. Shepherds who are looked down on by their society are chosen to receive a message from God. The news reaches across boundaries of race and religion to the magi. Breaking barriers of economics, social hierarchy and race is not calm or quiet, but it is what is needed to bring peace.

This year, storms started in November, about the time decorations went up in the stores and life in Ontario got frantic. The world is troubled with violence in lands the magi would have known as well as many other places from South Sudan to American cities. The story of a child born in poverty and turmoil long ago offers a different way through the challenges.

The tale of Jesus' birth does not give us a little peace and quiet. What the angels announced and the star hints at is the possibility of deep change and real transformation in this world.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walter's Falls.