It’s Christmas day, and when I opened my door on this quiet morning our neighborhood was covered over with a bright, soft glitter of snow. My house is quiet this morning because we did our major family celebration yesterday, complete with stockings and presents and Super Smash tournament and our traditional Christmas breakfast. It was one of the best days of my whole year. Every single one of my children was home at the same time, all happy and healthy, all glowing and loving each other.
When I was first divorced it felt like a disastrous compromise to have Christmas celebrations the morning of Christmas Eve, but I have grown to enjoy the rhythms of our Christmas seasons, making space for our children to spend as much time as possible with as many people who cherish them as possible. The better I learn to separate myself from comparison, from a story of what “should” be, the more joyful these sweet, dark days at the end of years have become. The weeks leading up to this particular Christmas have made the work of stepping away from the wretched story of what “should be” nearly impossible, though.
In response, I have taken the Advent season very seriously, pondering the wait for Christ’s birth, contemplating on the promises of the Christ story offered at the beginning of this liturgical year: hope, faith, joy, peace, love. These flickering candles have been the lights guiding me forward. And, oh, how I have needed guidance. For reasons I cannot fully detail in such a public space, the weeks of the Advent season and many weeks before that have been riddled with fear, anger, conflict, despair, crisis, want, sorrow, regret, and the desperate self-doubt that seems to always accompany difficult times for me. As the winter has crawled toward its deepest darkness, so have I. I have been covered over with darkness, hot and achy and pregnant with the desire for relief, for change, for things to be different, for me to be a different person or to at least be somewhere different, living some imagined life where I made all the “right” choices and landed myself in a place of comfort and ease and bliss.
So, I have been thinking a lot about Mary, the mother of Jesus, a young woman pregnant out of wedlock, swollen and achy and desperate for the relief of birth as she rode on a donkey to the town of Bethlehem. Of course the divine interventions and manifestations make the story hold together differently and for some they are the whole point of the story—an angel appearing to a beatific Mary who accepts God’s will for her, an angel reassuring Joseph that his betrothed was, indeed, carrying the Son of God, angelic heralds singing to shepherds as they watched their flocks at night. But it is the humble grace and metaphoric significance of the very human story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of their child that calls me this year.
Mary was probably unable to hide her pregnancy from her community, unable (and probably unwilling) to go on a face-saving campaign to tell all her neighbors that she was pregnant with God’s Own Son! and not just knocked up with either Joseph’s baby before they were married (gasp!) or the baby of some other man (gasp!). As if anyone would have believed her if she had tried to tell them.
Joseph had many options at discovering his betrothed (whom he’d apparently never known) was pregnant. Public shaming and stoning were definitely among these choices. Instead, he determined to break up with her quietly and not make a fuss about it. Then, upon learning things may not be as they seemed, he chose the simple faith and grace of remaining by her side and supporting her despite his utter lack of control over the situation.
In this state, they journeyed to Bethlehem, not for a nice couple’s retreat, but to pay taxes forgoodnesssake, knowing Mary was likely to give birth in an unknown city without the comforts of family or a good midwife or her favorite pillow. And when they arrived and Mary was clearly going to have her baby right now there wasn’t even any room in a noisy, crowded inn for her—only a dank, dark cave of a stable filled with the stink and noise of animals. The birth, I imagine, was like any of the births I’ve witnessed. There was probably pain and growling and blood and puke and mucus. And after all of this, in the midst of the hormonal upheaval of the postpartum period, she had to entertain a bunch of strange men who wandered their way from fields outside the city to the little hovel where Mary and Joseph had hoped to rest.
Yes. There may have been a bright new star in the sky. Yes. There may have been herald angels singing hallelujahs, frightening shepherds with the news of a glorious birth. But Jesus was not born glorious—a fully-formed God like Athena sprung from Zeus’s head. He was born Emmanuel, God With Us, born just like us—a squalling, pink and helpless infant adjusting to the lonely life outside the womb where he had to figure out how to breathe and communicate to the people around him when he was hungry or cold or wet or otherwise uncomfortable. He, like us, just had to trust his parents to care for him and keep him alive. His parents, like us, just had to do their best to fumble through caring for a tiny human.
It is these deeply human, incredibly painful and uncertain moments in the Christ story that bring me comfort this year. There may have been miracles later, atonement, resurrection, promises of eternal life. But in the figures of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus I see myself in all my fear and uncertainty and hope and hopelessness. The birth of Jesus was not the end of Mary’s suffering. Her hope for release and relief as she rode that bumpy rode on the back of a donkey was not answered with comfort and ease and all the answers to all of her problems. Her hope was met with a baby who needed all of the courage and hard work and faith she could muster. This baby was not, at this moment, any kind of answer. Jesus in the manger was not a resolution. He was only possibility. Baby Jesus represents faith through darkness, joy despite the constant change that is the fundamental nature of human existence, the peace of accepting things as they are right now rather than clinging to the time-traveling urges of regret or worry.
Neither Jesus’s birth nor his life forced the world to fundamentally shift to a place of love and peace and righteousness where all are fed and sheltered and loved and welcomed. This was the message, but it has not been the outcome. Yet. For some, the hope of Christ is the hope for a Someday, after this life, where all these things are made better. That is understandable and well and good. But that, for me, is not heaven. That kind of hope feels like looking around and deciding that I’m already in hell and the only way I’ll ever truly be happy is if this Christ story turns out to be true in all the ways I hope it is. That’s not enough anymore to get me through bleak Decembers like this one.
As I sit alone in my living room this morning, enjoying the peace and sweetness of tree-lights and bits of wrapping strewn about, I am grateful for the beginning—when nothing was certain, when Mary and Joseph had just endured one of the hardest trials of their lives with all their clumsy human grace, totally unaware of the difficult trials that lay ahead. The Jesus who fed a thousand with just a few loaves and fishes will come later in the story. Today I am grateful for the endless, unfulfilled possibility of a baby who needed to be fed—God truly with us in our helplessness and loneliness. Today I rejoice in divinity made manifest in schlubs like us who wade through darkness, embrace change, fight through fear, offer what help and relief we can, and hope for our own transformation into the kinds of people who make this world more loving and just and gentle for everyone.