For many years I never gave any thought to what it might have been like for Mary, the actual person, to be a pregnant woman travelling at those times under those conditions. The image of Mary on the donkey was just another Christmas card motif, along with the three wise men, shepherds on the hillside, the angel chorus, the animals in the stable, and the one star brighter than all the others.
But there was one year when the pictures of Mary on the donkey had a huge impact on me personally. It was Christmas 1990. I was three months pregnant with my first (only) child. Suddenly I empathised. Her situation became very real and I was thankful I did not need to travel anywhere on a donkey that day! Or worse, for four solid days in a row, to an unfamiliar place, without the comforts of my own home.
Every Christmas card that arrived reminded me of Mary. I found myself constantly wondering how Mary must have felt. What sort of pregnancy was she having? Was she feeling unwell? Did the unwellness pass after the first few hours of the day or was it constant? Did she feel sick if she didn’t stop to eat every couple of hours? How could she be sure there would be food when she needed it? Did her back ache? Was she overly hot – you know, the oven inside?
But, for me, even worse than the journey would have been the prospect of what lay ahead. For my baby, a nursery was already prepared. A special room for this special child I was expecting. Her own basinet. Clean sheets. A cot for later. A small cupboard full of baby-sized jumpsuits and jackets, bonnets and booties. Gentle washing liquid for baby’s clothes. Milton for sterilising. A nappy service for the first three months. Yes, I was facing a lot of unknowns but, as much as possible, my situation was settled and organised.
Mary faced the prospect of giving birth in a place not her own and with little opportunity to be well prepared and well stocked. A manger for her baby, not a basinet. (Yuk, germs!) And what about hygiene and personal comfort for the actual birth? The pregnant me found it almost impossible to comprehend how such difficulties could be faced! My heart went out to Mary.
The pregnant Mary, however, rejoiced in her circumstances and glorified God. She felt honoured to be the one to give birth to God’s son – however humble or difficult her situation. She knew that God was doing a great thing for the world and treasured all of it in her heart.
When the angels announced to the shepherds that the Saviour promised by God had finally come, the sign they gave was a baby “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”. The shepherds found the baby Jesus as described, in a food trough in a stable, in the most humble of circumstances. Jesus came into the world as one of us to be our servant-Saviour. He brought great joy to all who looked for his coming. And still does.