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Do you hear what I hear? The Christmas story reveals God’s voice in ordinary human experience

The story of Christmas is best read in its entirety by opening up a Bible and turning to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke chapters 1-2. Or if you can’t readily locate your Bible, you can let Google find the passages for you. Luke’s account of the Nativity of Jesus is easy to find.

I recommend starting with the first chapter of Luke because it really sets the stage for the birth of Jesus and literally tells how He came about. If you start with Luke chapter two — it is possible to get confused by verse five, where Luke describes Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem like this:

“He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” (Luke 2:5) This verse leaves too much to the imagination.

If you don’t read the preceding chapter, you miss the explanation of how the angel Gabriel came and told Mary that she was to conceive a child who would be God’s son and the savior of the world. The first chapter of Luke also includes the conception and nativity of John the Baptist and the joyful account of the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth — both miraculously pregnant — Mary by the Holy Spirit and Elizabeth in her old age. Don’t miss chapter one.

The second chapter of Luke includes Joseph and Mary’s long journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, and the account of the choir of angels appearing to the shepherds.

Matthew’s Gospel in chapters one and two provides even more details on the genealogy of Jesus and presents the story from more of Joseph’s point of view.

Like most pregnant parents, Joseph and Mary planned a name for their child while he was growing in Mary’s womb. Unlike any pregnant parents, though, the angel Gabriel revealed the name to them: Jesus — which means “savior and deliverer” — and Emmanuel, which means “God is with us”.The overwhelming theme of the Christmas story can be summed up in the holy name of God’s son — Jesus-Emmanuel.

Like the name of any infant king, Jesus needed time to grow into his name. The names of kings are often links to the past and statements about the future. The name of Jesus was to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and a promise that He would save God’s people from their sins.

The name Emmanuel was a promise which began its fulfillment at the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. From that moment, “Emmanuel” — God is with us  — was made manifest to the Virgin Mary and then to Joseph and Elizabeth and later to those who came to visit the newborn babe in Bethlehem.

The simplicity of the accounts of the birth of Jesus is profound. The Gospels connect the dots between the Old and New Testament and begin to reveal the plan of God in salvation history. But even more so, the birth of Jesus — the extraordinary son of God, come to save the world, was very ordinary — precisely because he is Emmanuel — God is with us.

God came to dwell with humanity in a family — one that wasn’t quite ready for him either — as evidenced by Mary’s questioning and Joseph “deciding to quietly divorce Mary.” Both of them needed Gabriel to explain how this could be before they could proceed.

In doing so, God took upon himself the very ordinary things of human life and made them holy avenues where grace abounds.

Joseph leads his pregnant wife to register his family for the census, in obedience to the law of the land. In the meantime, Mary goes into labor and gives birth unexpectedly in a stable. The shepherds were simply doing their ordinary work of tending sheep when an extraordinary vision of angels from heaven announced Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

One tradition we have in our home is to have a nativity in every room — including the bathrooms. These little nativity sets placed around our home remind us that God is with us at all times to transform our ordinary lives into extraordinary miracles which lead us to heaven.

On Christmas morning, my youngest daughter, Johanna, holds the baby Jesus in her hands as we march around singing “O Come Let Us Adore Him” Then she places Jesus in into the crèche and we sing “Happy Birthday.”

My favorite depiction of the holy family is a drawing my son made when he was six years old. It’s the holy family on the way to Bethlehem. Mary is hugely pregnant with Jesus and she is riding on a donkey which is pulled by Joseph.

This little family is headed to Bethlehem. But in the midst of this holy image, a large familiar sign stands out in the desert landscape. It’s a 7-Eleven and Joseph and Mary appear to be headed that way!

By the time he was six years old, my son was twice the big brother — the most recent baby sister being born on Thanksgiving that year. So he knew a few things about pregnancy and birth. He was old enough to realize that his dad stopped at 7-Eleven for coffee both times before taking me to the hospital. It was a family tradition my husband continued even for our fourth child’s birth — much to my dismay, as I labored in the car.

My son heard and depicted the Christmas story in a way that he could relate to in his young life. He imagined Joseph to be a good father, as he knew his own dad to be. And good dads stop for coffee — even on the way to have a baby. God dwelling with us in the ordinary meant Joseph probably stopped for coffee on the way to Bethlehem.

In Emmanuel — God with us — the ordinary becomes extraordinary — and the place where Jesus chooses to deliver us and set us free. While we are humbly doing the ordinary things in obedience to God, the Lord does the extraordinary and makes something beautiful of our lives.

I encourage you to read the gospel accounts of the Christmas story for yourself sometime before Christmas Eve. It will take less time than scrolling through your news feed on Facebook.

Grab a cup of coffee — or a glass of wine — sit by a crèche and read the Christmas story. And let God speak to you in the ordinary experiences of your life to see the ways in which his extraordinary plans are unfolding in you.

O Come, Emmanuel.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen