And Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child. And she brought forth a son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. And the angel of the Lord spoke to the shepherds and said, "I bring you tidings of great joy. Unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."
"There's a problem with the angel," said a Pharisee who happened to be
strolling by the stable. As he explained to Joseph, angels are widely
regarded as religious symbols, and the stable was on public property
where such symbols were not allowed to land or even hover.
"Besides," said a Sadducee who was with him, "there are no such things
as angels, and telling a child that they're real will only hinder the child's emotional development."
"And I have to tell you," said the Pharisee, "this whole thing looks very much like a Nativity scene. That's a no-no, too."
Joseph had a bright idea. "What if I put a couple of reindeer over there near the ox and ass?" he said, eager to avoid sectarian strife.
"That would definitely help," said the Pharisee, who knew as well as anyone that whenever a savior appeared, judges usually liked to be on the safe side and surround it with deer or woodland creatures of some sort. "Just to clinch it, throw in a candy cane and a couple of elves and snowmen, too," he said. "No court can resist that."
Mary asked, "What does my son's birth have to do with snowmen?"
"Snowpersons," cried a young woman, changing the subject before it veered dangerously toward religion.
Off to the side of the crowd, a Philistine was painting the Nativity scene. Mary complained that she and Joseph looked too tattered and
worn in the picture. "Artistic license," he said. "I've got to show the plight of the haggard homeless in a greedy, uncaring society in winter," he quipped.
"We're not haggard or homeless. The inn was just full," said Mary.
"Whatever," said the painter.
Two women began to argue fiercely. One said she objected to Jesus' birth "because it privileged motherhood." The other scoffed at virgin births, but said that if they encouraged more attention to diversity in family forms and the rights of single mothers, well, then, she was all for them.
"I'm not a single mother," Mary started to say, but she was cut off by
a third woman who insisted that swaddling clothes are a form of child
abuse, since they restrict the natural movement of babies.
With the arrival of ten child advocates, all trained to spot infant abuse and manger rash, Mary and Joseph were pushed to the edge of the crowd, where arguments were breaking out over how many reindeer (or what mix of reindeer and seasonal sprites) had to be installed to compensate for the infant's unfortunate religious character.
An older man bustled up, bowling over two merchants, who had been
busy debating whether an elf is the same as a fairy and whether the elf/fairy should be shaking hands with Jesus in the crib or merely standing to the side, jumping around like a sports mascot.
"I'd hold off on the reindeer," the man said, explaining that the use of asses and oxen as picturesque backdrops for Nativity scenes carries the subliminal message of human dominance. He passed out two leaflets, one denouncing manger births as invasions of animal space, the other arguing that stables are "penned environments" where animals are incarcerated against their will. He had no opinion about elves or candy canes.
Signs declaring "Free the Bethlehem 2" began to appear, referring to the obviously exploited ass and ox. Someone said the halo on Jesus' head was elitist.
Mary was exasperated. "And what about you, old mother?" she said sharply to an elderly woman. "Are you here to attack the shepherds as prison guards for excluded species, maybe to complain that singing in Latin identifies us with our Roman oppressors, or just to say that I should have skipped patriarchal religiosity and joined some new-age goddess religion?"
"None of the above," said the woman, "I just wanted to tell you that the Magi are here." Sure enough, the three wise men rode up.
The crowd gasped, "They're all male!" And "Not very multicultural!"
"Balthasar here is black," said one of the Magi.
"Yes, but how many of you are gay or disabled?" someone shouted. A
committee was quickly formed to find an impoverished lesbian wise-person among the halt and lame of Bethlehem.
A calm voice said, "Be of good cheer, Mary, you have done well and your son will change the world."
At last, a sane person, Mary thought. She turned to see a radiant and confident female face.
The woman spoke again: "There is one thing, though. Religious holidays
are important, but can't we learn to celebrate them in ways that unite,
not divide? For instance, instead of all this business about 'Gloria in
excelsis Deo,' why not just 'Season's Greetings'?"
Mary said, "You mean my son has entered human history to deliver the message, 'Hello, it's winter'?"
"That's harsh, Mary," said the woman. "Remember, your son could make
it big in midwinter festivals, if he doesn't push the religion thing too far. Centuries from now, in nations yet unborn, people will give each other pricey gifts and have big office parties on his birthday. That's not chopped liver."
"Let me get back to you," Mary said.
In the meantime the Magi had been asked by others how much their gifts had cost, and when told the price several protested and said the
money could have been better spent on the poor and homeless. "Besides,"
said one, "what can a baby do with gold, frankincense, and myrrh?"
"You don't understand," said one of the Magi, "we brought these gifts
to honor and worship this child who has been born King of the Jews."
Whereupon the child advocates protested that adults should not pre-determine a child's future. "It should be left up to the child to decide for himself what he wants to be."
One of the shepherds called out from the back of the crowd: "The prophet Micah wrote that out of Bethlehem would come a Ruler to shepherd God's people"
"That's just a myth," said the head of the Prophet's Seminar who had just arrived with his committee. "We scholars have determined that the prophet's actually said very little of what they are credited with saying, and everything they reportedly said about a Messiah was added years later by other writers."
"How did you determine that?" asked Joseph.
The most intelligent member of the Prophet's Seminar was chosen as spokesperson and replied, "We cast lots."
After much talking, the various advocates agreed to meet again at a later date in a place more suitable for them and continue their discussions about the child's welfare. Gradually they drifted out of the stable and left the shepherds and the Magi alone with Joseph and Mary and the child.
Mary took Joseph's hand and said, "Husband, tell me again what the angel Gabriel said to you about our son.
Squeezing her hand, Joseph answered, "He said that we should call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
Mary looked down at her son and sighed deeply, and then said to no one
in particular, "I wonder if they will let him?"