This is the first year I did not have a Christmas post ready. I have a draft of something that went nowhere, that’s it. As I mentioned before, these post camino days, combined with post election days have left me in a new and unexplored land. As a result, I spend more time stumbling around in some semi-darkness than I would care to.
But here’s the thing… I find myself remembering that what we celebrate tonight is a story rooted in the unlikely. That word was once one that I used often in these parts, but I lost track of using it. Anyway, the birth of Christ is most unlikely, don’t you think?
As we know, it was not the best time and it was not the best place. Mary and Joseph had made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They arrive and find that there is no place to stay, ultimately ending up in the area where the animals are kept and fed. Not really ideal conditions.
So yes, we know all of this, but yet we like to dress it up and make it sweet and beautiful. Beatific scenes such as the one at the top have informed us of Christmas for centuries. Now before anyone gets upset – there is nothing wrong with that. The beautiful and transcendent images help us to enter into the story in some ways as we pray and adore. The problem becomes more apparent when we get there and stop, never going beyond the pretty pictures. The exercise of making God over in our image has begun.
That is one of the reasons I love this image, from artist Everett Patterson, entitled “Jose y Maria.” This contemporary take really strikes me, I love it. Someone once told me that they found it “irreverent and disturbing.” They would not explain why they felt that way, so that conversation ended quickly. Is it the people of color? That they look potentially shady? Anyway, I find it draws me into a prayerful space. And I am feel the sharp pinch of awareness that Jesus does not have to look like me (Caucasian) to be my savior. In fact, he may look like a… minority. They could be the beginnings of a Holy Family, we might think, but that seems unlikely. We just never say why – it just is. Well, isn’t the entire Nativity the nadir of unlikely?
Ultimately, we imagine – in fact, often times we crave comfort and joy, but so often we end up with discomfort and ambiguity. Who likes that? Practically no one!
Maybe that is the message of this Christmas holiday, at least for me, at least for me this year. Comfort and joy will come, but not on our individual terms. Well that stinks! “But we ordered comfort and joy, not this!” is what we might want to say. It seems that what we ordered has nothing to do with anything, and redemption unfolds before us in its timeless dynamism no matter what, while God sorts out details that present us with challenges.
From the time of Jesus to the time of right here and right now, longing for a messiah translated into wanting a power figure. Whether it was the desire for a strong leader who would smash down the oppressive Romans to our current obsession with tough-talking politicians, we want what we want.
Have we learned nothing about how the power of the Almighty takes human form? Apparently not! And yet tonight we once again celebrate God showing up in the most vulnerable form, in the most – yes, unlikely place. He is born to two parents who are not from the glitterati of their time, and in a sketchy place.
And about that comfort and joy? It is there, of that I am convinced, but it may not be there as we imagine it to be, according to our standards and our desires. Tonight my prayer is this – God, help reshape my heart to welcome the comfort and joy that you bring, not the comfort and joy I have manufactured in my head.
When we hear, read, pray with the Christmas story this year, can we do so with new eyes and open hearts? That in and of itself seems unlikely, speaking for myself that is, but that is what I will try to do. Will you join me? I’m not sure what it will look or feel like, but I’m pretty certain that comfort and joy will overflow. If we allow it to do so…
This is my all time favorite Christmas hymn, although neither comfort nor joy is mentioned! May your Christmas be blessed with the joy found in unlikely places.