I often wondered what it would have been like for Mary and Joseph on the eve of Christ’s birth. As the story usually goes, a kind and compassionate innkeeper offered the tired couple space in the stable. I have often wondered if the innkeeper was actually kind or compassionate. Wouldn’t it be more likely that Joseph had to push and shove to advocate for a room in the midst of many others who were looking for a space? Would it also be more likely that the innkeeper did not really care when he offered the stable, but he figured if anyone was crazy enough to stay there he could make an extra buck? After all, most innkeepers were probably keen to take advantage of the Roman census to make an extra buck? Isn’t that more like the world we live in? Bethlehem, most likely did not have the capacity to host a Roman census of which was forced upon her. Maybe it is my experience in Mozambique that in a culture similar to that of which Judea would have been in the time of Jesus, this is the more likely scenario. But what I have also learned is that in a rough place with rough and calloused people, even a reluctant offer is a sign of compassion when compared with nothing at all.
It was not our choice to be traveling from Maputo to Johannesburg on Christmas Eve. We, like the Jews, were subject to the authorities and had to submit our foreign documents and request a declaration letter to leave Mozambique while our documents were in process. This of course, took several days and in order to make the MCC Christmas celebration on the 25th we needed to travel. As we entered the upper hills of the escarpment east of Johannesburg the car overheated. Fearing the worst we pulled over and the engine promptly stopped. After some time a kind young man stopped by in his pickup truck and in a heavy Afrikaans accent asked us if we needed help. We figured we needed a pull and he left to get his father and a rope to pull us to a neighboring place where another young man with his friends opened up a guestroom in their house for us to stay the night. We had not eaten and before they went out to celebrate Christmas Eve they asked us if we had eaten. They opened there fridge up and started giving us burgers, soda and other food. I found myself in the position so often of a poor family who had nothing to eat and was relying on the generosity of someone else. I was somewhat ashamed and thanked them over and over, even bowing a little not knowing what to do with myself. It was quite an awkward position.
After we had everything unloaded I was talking with the young man with regards to the next day and whether there was a mechanic in town and when our MCC colleagues would come to fetch us. He looked uncomfortable so I asked him if there was a problem.
‘Just don’t take my stuff,’ he replied uncomfortably.
Wow, my mouth about dropped open but thought, ‘Of course, he does not know me from Adam.’ South Africa has had a tumultuous history, distrust and theft and violent crime is more common than in North America of course he would be distrustful. I assured him it would no longer happen and thanked him once again for his generosity.
Of course all this was fairly disconcerting and I began to worry about all the details of the next days and weeks. How to fix the car? What to do when my parents visit if we do not have a car? The Christmas Eve we were missing with the MCC family?
I returned once more to the car to make sure it was locked. It was parked under a tree and as I turned around from locking the door I saw in the green of the grass just beyond the shadow of the tree, three sheep, five ducks and a couple of chickens all looking at me in a semi-circle. The almost full moon shown down through the tree branches like the star of Bethlehem and the sheep and ducks glowed in the moonlight. It was as if the manger was right in front of me in the shelter of the tree and we all were in the presence of the Lord. It was as if God was saying, “Peace be to you, a child has been born!”
Though I do not claim that we are similar to Mary and Joseph but I felt like we could somehow understand God’s care and there was something altogether holy about that night that I will never forget. I went back to our room so graciously given us, forgot about the details that had earlier occupied my mind and embraced my lovely daughter and her mother.