This morning a friend and colleague shared on Facebook an essay by Matt Emerson, published Dec. 9th for America: The National Catholic Review, entitled “The Terrifying First Christmas”
It’s an incredible read, one of those “I wish I had written this” pieces that reminds us of the harsh realities that existed at the time Jesus was born. A first Christmas that Emerson says rattles a marriage, exiles a family, endangers lives and provokes a madman to murder.
The challenge for moderns is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in us all. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room?
It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. Christ imperils. At Jesus’ Presentation (only 40 days after his birth), Simeon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry. This is the first Christmas.
Emerson’s words are an immensely valuable gift for Christians to hear–an important reminder that in the midst of our joyful celebration today and through the course of the Christmas season, we shouldn’t forget the upheaval which accompanies Christ’s birth.
Although I once preached on the long-held belief that the birth shatters kingdoms, I have needed the admonition several times this Advent Season and particularly yesterday, Christmas Eve. As much as I want our family to have this perfect, idyllic Christmas that is free of drama and pain, the reality is that it just. ain’t. gonna. happen.
We have a 4-week-old baby boy named Davis who, while being a beautiful bundle of joy, screams every three hours to be fed, sleeps mostly during the day and haphazardly at night and poops like its his profession. On top of this, Elizabeth is still recovering from her C-section delivery while discovering she has severe gall stone issues have already warranted two visits by the paramedics, two visits to the ER and will require surgery in the next month. I won’t go into the particulars but it’s been quite a crazy and rough experience, agonizingly so for my wife. It’s also a nice emotional three-fer with December being the 1-year anniversary of the death of Elizabeth’s dad.
Then there is our 5 and a half-year-old Katie who is the most wonderful creative, imaginative and loving daughter and big sister anyone could ask for. However, she’s 5 and a half-year-old. So the mood swings can be all over the map. Enthusiastic and cheerful one minute, and anxious and irritated/fussy/sad/angry the next. (And that’s on a normal day.)
If that wasn’t enough, we’ve got two labs and a cat who are constantly begging for attention. Normally, this would be ok but as of now, the constant whimpering and meowing and sniffing and scratching and farting is driving us INSANE!
And yet, we have it good by comparison. Roof over our heads. Beds to sleep in. Heat. Clean water. Plenty of food, not counting all the Christmas goodies. Presents under the tree. Friends and Family. Fairly good health, except for that gall stone thing. In all, we have many blessings to be grateful for.
Our circumstances are manageable. Sure, it’s stressful and frustrating and worrisome.. and not exactly the ideal way to spend Christmas but what is ideal or perfect anyway.
As Christians, we are called to tell the story of that First Christmas that is “a mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry” and retell it through lives that are made up of those same elements.
Many families like ours will celebrate Christmas with a precocious pre-schooler and a newborn and a sick family member.
Many families will have a child that misbehaves or parents who have an ugly argument or a Christmas bonus that doesn’t arrive or a turkey that gets eaten by the Bumpuses mangy dogs.
Numerous families will experience an outburst from an alcoholic uncle, a junkie cousin or a racist grandfather or a homophobic cousin.
Someone will mark their first or 51st Christmas without a beloved relative or friend in their lives.
A parent will experience the death of their child.
A homeless man will go without food while a working mom of two is evicted from her home.
A 20-something will work two shifts at a fast food restaurant making minimum wage and then go home to an empty apartment.
A young woman will be sold into the sex trade while an elderly man is robbed.
A neighborhood will be devastated by powerful storms.
A news pundit or politician or celebrity will say/Tweet/Facebook (etc.) something inane about another group of people to stir up fear and hate.
War and environmental destruction and violence and a score of other atrocities will occur this Christmas day and in the days ahead.
It is the way of the world and of life…but the hope that we celebrate and welcome and retell every year is the birth of Emmanuel whose light has/is/will shine so brightly that neither darkness nor the brokenness nor the suffering can overcome it.
May our hearts be battered as Emerson says. But may they also be shaped and reshaped again and again and again. In the battering and reshaping, may we discover the powerful Incarnation that breaks into our world and enters the wonders and pangs of life