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Perhaps looking at it in this way helps us to understand both stories better, and to appreciate more fully the experiences, challenges and struggles of families that we know today.
Every year we hear the Christmas story, of Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem on a donkey, of the innkeeper, angels and shepherds, the wise men, and of course the baby Jesus. But have you ever looked at this story as a metaphor for additional needs families? Here’s a different look at this well-known story and how much of what happens can have a parallel in the story of parents of children with additional needs or disabilities…
Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, to tell her that she is to have a very special child. This comes as surprising news to Mary and she is ‘greatly troubled at his words’, before accepting what the angel has to say, “May it be to me as you have said.”
For the families of children with additional needs, unexpected news can arrive during a pre-natal scan or examination, after birth, or later. This news can be greatly troubling, devastating even, and not every family is able to be as accepting of their news as Mary was of hers. For some, the news may be that their child will not survive, or will be significantly disabled for life. It can be a very hard time indeed for families, who grieve all that their child might have been but now probably won’t be.
A DIFFERENT LOCATION
Mary and Joseph needed to travel to Bethlehem because the census was being taken and Joseph, belonging to the house and line of David, had to register with Mary at the town of David, which is Bethlehem.
If there are concerns about a baby pre-birth, the range of options for the place where the baby will be delivered will be limited. A home birth might be out of the question, with the specialist provision of a hospital maternity department being the only choice. This might require a journey to somewhere unfamiliar, maybe in another town; thankfully it is unlikely to involve a ride on a donkey, but it may still be a difficult journey.
Mary and Joseph reach Bethlehem but there is nowhere for them to stay. Mary needs somewhere safe to give birth to her baby and, although there are no rooms available for them to stay in the inn, the innkeeper allows them to use the stable, with the newborn baby being placed in the animals’ manger.
Families of children born with additional needs or a disability often talk about how, in all of the overwhelming medical crisis that might be happening to them and their child, there is one person, maybe a midwife, a nurse or a doctor, maybe a hospital volunteer who brings a cup of tea and a kind word, whose simple act of kindness transforms a hard situation into one which, while still profoundly challenging, is just a little more bearable.
Mary had just given birth when a bunch of shepherds turned up, having just been told about the birth of Jesus by a host of angels. Goodness knows what Mary thought about this, she must have been exhausted and yet here were all these strangers arriving to see her baby. Luke’s Gospel says that ‘Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’
A little later, Mary, Joseph and Jesus had more strange visitors, this time wise men, or Magi, from the east. They brought gifts and wanted to see the baby. Matthew 2:1-12
Families of a baby born with additional needs or a disability will get used to strangers too, with an often impressive list of medical and social care professionals involved in the care and support of the child and their family. Parents might ponder all of this too… wondering what the future holds for their child.
Mary and Joseph were warned by the Magi that Jesus was in danger from King Herod, and so they fled to Egypt. Herod ordered the death of all boys under two-years-old across Bethlehem and the surrounding area, but he was too late to catch Jesus and his family.
There are people in the world today who do not understand or accept children with additional needs or disabilities and can be terribly cruel to them and their families. Hateful things can be said and done, and some even have the opinion that babies with additional needs or disabilities should be euthanised or ‘put to sleep’. Families will encounter these views on their journey, and it is incredibly hurtful and hard to do so.
After their time in Egypt, Mary, Joseph and Jesus were able to come back to Israel again, to set up home in the town of Nazareth near Galilee. That became the place Jesus knew as his earthly home during most of his 33 years of life.
For families of children born with additional needs or disabilities, it might be a long time before they are able to bring their child home; some, of course, sadly never make it. For those that do, the journey might have been a long and difficult one, and perhaps will continue to be so, but eventually they are able to come home and the family are able to start to plan for their future together. A different future to the one they had originally envisaged and expected, but a future that can still be wonderful.
So, the Christmas story does have some parallels to the story of many families of children born with additional needs or disabilities… Perhaps looking at it in this way helps us to understand both stories better, and to appreciate more fully the experiences, challenges and struggles of families that we know today.
Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.