As the pilgrims wearily trooped into Bethlehem, they would not have noticed a poor couple from the north country desperately searching for a place to lodge. They would have had no way to know that history’s greatest miracle was incubating within the young woman on the back of a donkey. If they happened to notice, the only observation a spectator might make was this lady needed a place to rest, for her child was about to be born.
Outside of their parents or a trusted rabbi, few would have been privy to the sacred secrets this couple possessed. If they had been inclined to share their story, who would have even believed them? The husband would never have brought his new wife on this journey unless prophecy had propelled them to traverse Israel to register for taxation in Bethlehem.
Even after Mary’s child was born, very few people in Bethlehem were even aware of the significance of what happened. How could anyone give any credence to the wild story some shepherds were telling? If angels really did appear, why didn’t they announce their glad tidings to the leaders of the people? Later, when some foreigners stopped briefly at a home in town, no one knew they were astrologers who had been following a special star for months. To the casual observer they could have been part of trade caravans traveling through the country all the time.
Many miracles that took place in Jesus’ ministry were so obvious that even his critics could offer no intelligent alternative explanation. When a man who had been lame from birth suddenly was able to take up his bed and walk, spectators just stood in awe at the change in his condition. When the man born blind was abruptly able to see clearly, folks stared in amazement. When the deranged demoniac was found clothed and conversing intelligently, his family could only weep with joy.
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But miracles don’t always manifest themselves immediately. It was only after many months that relatives knew anything about what had happened in the lives of an old country priest, Zacharias and his barren wife, Elizabeth. The carpenter Joseph and his fiancéé Mary shared a divine secret for months while some of their acquaintances whispered about the scandal of their courtship. God was leading them where no one had ever gone before, and where others would have a hard time believing — even to this day.
There have been numerous miracles that have happened backstage in life, where no one can see them initially! These can be more powerful and life-changing than the blind seeing or the dead coming back to life. Who could measure the power of a changed mind as a prodigal child decided to turn around and return home to the loving embrace of a waiting father? What explanation could anyone offer for the change in the life of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9) who unexpectedly consecrated himself to be a Christian missionary?
The greatest gifts this Christmas may not be those wrapped in bright paper under the tree. It could be the phone call from some loved one who has been estranged from the family. Or a son or daughter delivered from the bondage of a drug habit? What price could be placed on a long overdue apology, and an unexplainable peace that descends upon a troubled marriage? How about an appetite or a night of complete rest?
My Christmas prayer for you this year is a gift so precious that it changes the dynamic of your life. It may not be evident to us until the time of sacred incubation has been fulfilled. Then we will all know of the miracle that took place behind the scenes.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.