It is time to leave for the Christ Mass. The painted plaster figures of Jesus and Mary and Joseph stand serenely in the soft glow of tiny multicolored lights. Nearby shepherds and sheep stare in timeless, frozen adoration. On the windowsill wise men of three races wend their way, moved forward inch by inch by little hands each day. For a quiet moment, between the bustle of buying and the apprehension of giving and receiving, hope happens, prayer is answered, peace seems possible.
Of course, a couple thousand years ago it could not have been more different. The village square was packed and alive with vendors hawking their wares, animals bleating in their pens, villagers bustling about their business, visitors seeking their way, con artists flim flaming the unwary, tax collectors levying duties, dogs gleaning scraps, Pharisees and Sadducees preening, parsing, praising and shaming and, around the perimeter, Caesar's soldiers and Herod's spies securing the interests of the state.
Unnoticed, into this cacophony, this offal assault of cooking, animal and human body odors, this blur of non-sanitized activity, a carpenter with calloused hand led his near-term, pregnant teenage wife. Anxiously they sought a place to stay while they registered for a census. Every place was full but a pious innkeeper, noting the woman's condition and being observant of the law and not wanting to commit Sodom's sin of inhospitality, suggested they might stay in his inn's barn, an offer they accepted with relief and thanks.
Then, as the ancients so delicately put it, "her time was accomplished and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger." Maybe because men told the tale or because time mellows memory, we are left to fill in the details: the pain, the screams, the blood and messiness of childbirth in the midst of the smells and roughness of a barn. Did Joseph gently and firmly hold Mary's hand in his rough own as is expected of modern metrosexual men? Or like most men in most ages did he wait outside, his masculine superiority thoroughly threatened by Eve's strength, waiting until things had quieted down and were cleaned up before cautiously poking his head through the door to see how mother and child fared? Old icons hint at the latter. They show Joseph sitting off in a corner, holding his head in his hands, wondering how he got involved in this scenario.
Who helped? Who was the midwife? Did the inn owner's wife come bearing hot water and clean cloths? Perhaps it was a cousin or two in this Bethlehem of Mary's ancestors. Instead of gritty details, Matthew and Luke write a retrospect of mythic embellishments, worshipful shepherds, caroling angels, and adoring Zoroastrian priests whose gifts make our lotteries look meager by comparison.
Every Christmas tugs us between human reality and lovely mellow myth and mystery, between the conflict that surrounds us and the peace for which we yearn. Modern tanks and soldiers in Manger Square confront the chanting of ancient prayers in Bethlehem's Church of the Holy Nativity repeating a never-ending loop of oppression and hope. We seem caught between the contradiction that befuddles and the consistency that binds.
But could it be this is the point? God enters our life dead center neither ignoring the nasty and frivolous nor denying the glory and the power, but being with us in the wholeness of our humanness. Once again, do we not dream with Joseph, "'They shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us.'"?
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