Christmas (the Mass of Christ) is a holy celebration of the most holy event in the history of the world. This God whose holiness forbade even the utterance of His name, this awesome Creator, chose to invade our planet in this galaxy so that we could, at last, not only say His name but experience His true nature after centuries of misunderstanding and partial information.
The theology of Christmas is at once centrally vital, yet beyond our ability to make it "systematic." Heaven and earth in one zygote. God and a human woman joined without physical contact. Limitless eternity limited to a thirty-three-year life lived by a man in a Middle Eastern town with no place to call home. The Word- that vibrating sound wave, common denominator of all matter, that bombastic Word that was the "big bang" and continues to speak order out of chaos, that total Truth and Love and Energy-was reduced to a whimper from a manger. The Bread of Life sprouts in a dish for animals' grain in a town whose name means "city of bread." Who can wrap a mind around it all?
Yet, it is not only the transcendence of it that amazes us. It is the detailed, common, simple, painful, beautiful humanity of it all: the peasant status, the unceremonial circumstances, the rustic setting, and the lack of privilege.
We know that we are called, as Ann Johnson says in Miryam of Nazareth (Ave Maria Press, 1984), to a spirituality that transcends our humanity. But could it be that we are, as she suggests, also called to a humanity that transcends our spirituality-"a humanity so simply lived that we do not practice spiritual rigors to condition ourselves for closeness to God"? Rather, could we be called to a humanity "so filled with the love of God/neighbor that the Word is commonly spoken in simple miracles of God-bearing, healing, sharing . . . spoken in song and dance, in loving remembrances of those who have gone before and in rejoicing embraces of those we talk with, feed, nurture and with whom we celebrate"?
In my experience, God more often comes in surprising, daily, unglamorous, and un-pious ways. The liturgy that chants its way into my Monday mornings is, more often than otherwise, uttered not by priests and clergy, but by children who have no idea of what wonder they are inspiring. The incense that wafts its way above my head like the fragrance of the Holy Spirit is the aroma of forgiveness I haven't had the good sense to ask for, or the sweet perfume of a spontaneous embrace when words won't come and won't do.
As I think back over my life, the high moments of ministry have come in the form of a cool washcloth on my forehead when I was vomiting or a call from someone who knew the weight of my load, offering a pot of hot soup for the family supper or an afternoon of childcare so I could get groceries without hauling toddlers in and out of car seats. A few times, it's just been someone offering to sew on a button or fix a torn hem at the last minute so I could get on stage.
I think we sometimes forget in spiritualizing the glory of Christmas that this Bethlehem story is one of sore backs, sore feet, labor pains, desperation, and inconvenience. It is the story of a soon-to-be husband's patient endurance, a harried innkeeper's considerate offer when there was no room or reservation, and an inexperienced girl giving birth without necessary provisions (and without her mother around).
And lest we get too romantic about the whole scenario, it was not the frightened mother who heard the confirming angels, but some nomadic flock-followers who had no idea what the commotion was all about. It was not the patient and worn-out Joseph who was inspired by the star to keep going, but some shy scholar who had no real tie to this most human development in Bethlehem.
Stories are told in their entirety only in hindsight. As Marcel Proust believed, memory may actually be the only truth. Only in memory do we know what came before an event and what followed it. While things are happening, each person is living out only his or her own seemingly isolated piece of the puzzle. This has been true of my life: not at all spiritual, inspiring, or full of wonder while it's happening. Today's Christmases are very similar in many ways to the first. We don't know how profound the details are while they're happening. For example, I could never have anticipated how intensely personal the story of the Incarnation was going to become until I was pregnant with my first baby. But when the labor pains started in earnest on December 15, and I was alone at home, scrubbing down the walls of our little house because the furnace had belched smoke onto the yellow paint, I felt a bit of the panic Mary must have felt when she feared her baby would come before she could find a safe place to have Him. On that Christmas Eve, still sore and faint from a hard delivery and loss of blood, I held our little dark-haired child while someone read the Christmas story in our family circle. "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes . . ." (Luke 2:7 kjv), the story went. But in my mind I was thinking, How did she ever ride that donkey back to Nazareth? How could we have known a few Christmas Eves ago that the pictures we took of us piled around Bill's mother on the couch, holding the newest babies and fussing over the children, would not be developed until after her funeral. Would we have sung any sweeter than we did that night when our son, Benjy, for some unknown reason, brought his guitar? Would we have laughed with more joy at the little ones' requesting not only "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph" but also "Twist and Shout" and Nanci Griffith hits?
I remember like it was yesterday finding a layaway slip in my father's billfold for something he'd been making payments on for Christmas. He had died in his sleep the night we were singing in Kansas City. We thought he had a cold because he'd been coughing so hard, but as it turned out, the congestion was in his heart cavity and not his lungs. After the funeral it fell on me to visit the jewelry store to see what he'd been buying for Christmas.
The diamond cluster the lady brought out to me had a story of its own. My parents were converted in a very strict holiness church, and trying to follow God, Mother was convinced her wedding rings were "worldly" and she sold them. After a while Daddy was called to preach, and from then on we never had enough money for Mother to have expensive jewelry. We were lucky to have money left on Sunday night for a family trip to Dairy Queen. (Daddy didn't get paid until Monday.) Daddy had always been sad that Mother had sold her rings, though she never complained. As soon as I saw the ring that day in December, I knew Daddy was going to put these diamonds on the finger of his bride if it was the last thing he ever did. It was. Only he didn't get to see them there.
Like the first Christmas, our Christmases have puzzle pieces as profound as shepherds, mangers, and the tax census. Only we usually don't know until the puzzle is finished; the details seem unrelated until the whole story is written. Pieced together, they make the mosaic of Christmas holy.
If those events in Nazareth and Bethlehem taught us anything, it must be that God came to blur the line between the mundane and the divine. He came to let us know that this great and awesome Jehovah intended from the beginning that our regular days be so filled with awe and wonder that we really couldn't bear any more miracles. Just the unspoiled trust of a young girl or the birth of a baby or the compassion and sensitivity of strangers are marvels enough! Maybe He came to peel the glaze off our faded eyes so that we recognize a star-studded night when we see one and can pick out the singing of angels from the lowing of oxen, the bleating of sheep, and the children arguing on the hillside.
"Immanuel." Yes. God is with us. As architect Mies van der Rohe said, "God is in the details." But too often we bludgeon the details with our stampeding feet, racing off to some new, more indulgent deity-one that will give us money instead of riches, "perks" instead of treasure, parties instead of peace.
I pray that this is the season we, like the shepherds, will recognize something amazingly angelic in the voices of our own children. It is my hope that the "Incarnation story" will be written with the details of our own scenarios, personal experiences in which God does come to dwell in us, in our human gatherings and our make-do celebrations, even if we end up having Christmas in the barn because it's the only place big enough to accommodate all of us.
And may some of us this year see the star, know that this is no ordinary event, and bring to the party lavish, extravagant gifts of forgiveness, mercy, and grace that will sustain the ones who need to travel to a new heart place where hateful pursuers cannot harm the spirit.
May the sky explode above all our heads with unstoppable music that cannot be stifled by wars, taxes, or dull routine. Glory in the Highest, indeed!
It is advent. I am waiting-waiting for Your coming, Lord. There are so many places where I wait for Your coming. You came to Bethlehem, that tiny place of an almost forgotten promise. You came to Nazareth, no spectacular town, and You came to Bethany, Capernaum, and Jerusalem. There are places in my life that await Your coming. Here-where Your message of reconciliation is so needed; or there-where Your tears could fall as they did over Jerusalem. I need You to come where it would take at least a choir of angels to make the dullest of hearts aware of something eternal. I wait for Your entrance into those dark places of disbelief- the crude and mundane corners of my existence so in need of starlight illuminations.
Come where there is little privacy, comfort, or warmth- where animals feed and lowly service is offered. How many times have I plunged headlong into the celebration of Your coming without being assured of Your actual arrival?
I have gone more days than three "assuming You to be in our presence." But Advent is not for scurrying or for assuming. It is for waiting. May I recognize You when You come not as the peak moment of our preplanned celebration, but as the subtle surprise, the simple object of wonder, the God of small things. I wait. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Copyright © 2004 by Gloria Gaither