It is not a story you will find written in the Gospels nor recorded elsewhere in the writings of the Church, but it is a story I have always felt was true. If the Gospels end with the Empty Tomb, they begin with the Empty Crib.
When Mary returned from visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Joseph had a surprise for his betrothed. After their uncertain start, Joseph wanted to make amends. He wanted to show he would be there for her and was indeed quietly excited by this forthcoming birth.
So while Mary was away he had set to work. Using offcuts from other commissions, and finding time around other paying customers, Joseph set to work to build a crib for their baby. And when Mary returned from her stay with Elizabeth, Joseph could not wait to show his handiwork to her. With his hands covering her eyes, he led her into his workshop…and then the big reveal. Her squeal of delight was reward enough. Gazing together at the empty crib, the excitement of being parents drew them closer together. Despite the shaky start they were going to make great parents.
And in the weeks that followed Mary would find endless excuses to visit Joseph in his workshop just to look at the crib, and touching her growing belly would smile with quiet excitement at the prospect of the adventure ahead. At the end of each day Joseph took a brief moment to run his hand over the wood of the crib, his heart pregnant with expectation at the prospect of fatherhood.
Their dreams shattered in an instant by the rough knock on the door, the message of the census and the unlooked-for journey back to Joseph’s home town. As they gathered their few possessions for the journey, unspoken they both knew the crib would need to be left behind but surely they would be back – this was just a temporary interruption to the life they had planned together.
Resting beside the road at night, the darkness hid the growing anxiety in both their eyes that they would not be back home in time for the birth. Their last thoughts before a troubled sleep and their first on a too early waking were of the crib and the lost security it represented.
Bethlehem. The crowds. The onset of contractions. No home comforts, no privacy and in the end only the stable’s manger for their sleeping baby – both trying hard not to think of the sweet crib that now seemed so far away. This was not how it was meant to be.
Rumours of the wrath of Herod. When the only hope of safety is leaving home behind then you know this is not the future you had planned. No one chooses to become a refugee. Each night on the long road to Egypt, cowering in the darkness, alert to every sound, taking turns to cradle their baby, their last thoughts before a troubled sleep and their first on a too early waking were of the crib and the lost security it represented.
Trying to find a home in a foreign county, far from everything that was once so familiar, thoughts would often turn to another time and another place, and uninvited, each would find coming to their memory an empty crib and all their dreams of what they had imagined parenthood would be like.
By the time it was safe enough to return there was no more need of a crib and the path they would be forced to take would mean it would never be seen again, never again would they feel its wood beneath their hands. But as this baby grew first to boyhood and then to manhood, and life with Jesus took so many twists and turns that this became the new normal, still the image of that crib would return and they would wonder what had happened to the life they had planned.
Memories of magi from the East. Gifts of Gold and Frankincense were surprising but flattering in their way. But myrrh hinted at a different darker story; a gift for one who would suffer. This was not part of his parents’ dreams. And a cousins meeting. News of John baptising at the River Jordan spread like wild-fire through the towns and countryside, heralding the one who was to come. But John is stopped in his tracks as the one whose sandal he knows he is not worthy to tie asks him for baptism. A mother’s delight at accompanying her son to a wedding yet a strange place for a Messiah to begin bios ministry and when all are a little the worse for wear, water is turned into wine, 150 gallons of wine. What kind of a son is this, what kind of a Messiah is this?
I believe every church should have an empty crib by its door and there as we enter we should place our assumptions, our expectations, our judgements and our prejudices. Made with such sincerity of purpose and good intent, the empty crib should sit there as a folly to our pretence to understand the things of God.
To understand the moment of Epiphany it is necessary to let go of the way you thought it would be – bring nothing but an open mind and a responsive heart. With hands outstretched and eyes wide open, with Jesus we walk into a future not of our making but of his shaping. Epiphany comes when we let God take us where He wills.