A Shadow Over Bethlehem

(Whether you read the Bible literally or symbolically, the Christmas narratives are alive with meaning. Here’s the third part of a series called Nativity Snapshots)

A shadow falls over Bethlehem, and no one senses it but Mary.

The shepherds have come and gone, their voices a faded memory. Joseph is asleep, worn out by the mysterious events. Only Mary is restless. She sits in the silence, cradling her newborn son in her arms. He is resting so quietly, moonlight falling on his peaceful face.

She ponders what she has seen and heard. Though her strongest response is joy, it’s a happiness tinged by foreboding, like the edge of a shadow touching her heart. She remembers the words of Gabriel as he announced her pregnancy. “You will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.”crown of thorns in the manger

Mary can barely fathom this destiny. Israel has waited centuries for the Anointed One; could the miracle truly be at her breast? And if it’s true, she thinks, will he endure the same hardship as David? Will he be a warrior, helping Israel overthrow Roman occupation? Will he know only constant struggle as he risks his life to resurrect Israel’s Golden Age? Will he have no peace as he seeks to bring shalom to others?

Isaiah’s words about the Messiah come to her: “He will be despised and rejected,
a man of suffering, familiar with pain.”

Thirty three years later, Mary would realize the full extent of that suffering. She would stand and weep on a hilltop called Golgotha, her son hanging naked and humiliated, rejected by his own people.

She would look up at him, the shadow of that cross extending back through the years, stirring so many memories. Jesus’ words of hope to thousands. His healing hands bringing sight to the blind and strength to the lame. His stories of prodigal sons, lost sheep, and good Samaritans. His open arms welcoming tax collectors, prostitutes and lepers. His anger sweeping greed from the temple, challenging religious leaders that lacked mercy and justice. His calm, courageous eyes while facing Pontius Pilate, saying “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

She would long to reach out and comfort him, but the Roman guards would prevent her. It would be a grief no human being should endure. She would lift her voice and wail, hearing him cry out, “It is finished!”

How could she know she would see him again? How could she know that history’s ultimate triumph would dissolve her agony in a bright morning light? How could she know that the shade of that cross, like a mighty rock in a sun-scorched land, would bring comfort and salvation not just to the Jews, but all people?

That future has yet to unfold. For the moment, Mary sits in Bethlehem, steeped in solitude. And though her sleeping son looks angelic, the icy fingers of that distant shadow brush her face. She shivers slightly, holds Jesus tighter, and whispers a prayer for her precious child.

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