Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An Inconvenient Birth

These days, my vivid and unruly imagination refuses to stay fixed on the book I ought to be reading, and instead floats away upon odours of pine, clementines freshly-peeled, and warm gingerbread. I dutifully station myself next to a pile of student work to mark, while sugar plums with full dance cards refuse to stop waltzing in my head. All I want to do is bake cookies, drag a tree home, go on top-secret missions for gifts, and gaze at the two kilometers of sparkling trees that flank the Champs-Elysees.

Every year, alongside the giddy joys that make up the month of December, I find myself wondering, with melancholy, whether Christmas will somehow pass me by. As if the event were a train with a tight schedule to keep.* Lately, I have been bemoaning (to any unfortunate soul who is around to listen) that December 25th is approaching altogether too quickly, and I don't have time to enjoy the journey. Poor me. I must be the only one in the whole, wide world with this problem.

Everyone knows that for all the manifold inconveniences of the Christmas season - uncomfortable reunions with estranged family, traveling long distances for short visits, long lines, the unavailability of accommodations, bad weather, crabby people – we only have ourselves to blame. It is the product of our dogged commercialization, the thirty-two days of rapid-fire retail from Black Friday to Christmas Day. It is what we get for reducing the most significant event of all human history down to a fruitcake-eating clown-act.

If only we could go back to The First Noel, when all was peaceful, unrushed, and perfectly planned…

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Perfectly planned. Hmm. At first glance, this is hardly the model family for NFP. Both parents seem caught off-guard, especially the father - which we all know is a serious breach in relationship communication. In our day and age, they would have needed months of counseling. What’s more, Mary would hardly have had the time to dog-ear her copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” and (gasp!) the nursery would not have been ready, because the curtains would have been on backorder at IKEA. By our society’s standards, a very irresponsible way of building a family. At least it was "in the fulness of time."

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Shame. The closest I let myself get to this word during this cheery time is being overly preoccupied that the holiday goodies I bring to the party will be found worthy of eager consumption. (Yes, I do worry about that.) But this poignant little verse brings home the real meaning of that uncomfortable word. Regardless of the joyous truth that we are privy to now as readers, a premarital trust had been broken. Mary looked awfully culpable. But Jesus’ earthly father, being just, loved mercy. (Am I that merciful?)

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

When I used to listen to my dad or my uncle read the account of Jesus’ birth from Luke on Christmas Eve, my mind usually flitted over the historical details above. The first part always sounded like blah, blah, blah, until words like “angels” and “glory” popped up, and (curiously enough) “swaddling clothes”. (I’m not sure why I got hooked on that one, except that it’s so much fun to say out loud. ) At any rate, it never occurred to me how the news of this official decree must have made Mary and Joseph’s hearts sink. The expectant mother was almost to full-term and they would be completing a 90-mile trip one-way, with very little chance of finding a bed when they got there. We might have counseled the young couple to stick around Galilee for an unhurried childbirth, with the help of surrounding family. Much “wiser”. Despite the difficulties, they chose to obey God-appointed authorities and rushed off to Bethlehem.

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

Though I always loved this passage about the shepherds, I somehow edited out that part about “fear”. This is another word we tend to avoid at this merry time , unless we’re talking about little Johnny who freaked out when his mom made him sit on a stranger’s lap in the mall, just so she could have a cute picture for the family Christmas card. But if we’re honest, most of us are acutely afraid of a good many things, and this doesn’t change just because we overhear Jingle Bells playing in the grocery store.

This is beginning to look rather bleak. Why won’t Christmas save us out of our troubles? Perhaps somewhere in the myriad of inconveniences, in the puzzlement of heart-breaking misunderstandings, and even in the face of shame and fear, we can still hear the angels:

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy…
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!

Yes, it’s still my favorite part.


* Credit: The Polar Express. If you have never seen this, go rent it. Now.