I am so tired of hearing about the true meaning of Christmas.
These somber homilies that always begin the same way: “he was brought into this world as a babe.” “God became a tiny baby in a stinking manger.” Something about Emmanuel. Something about God being us. Something, something, something. They’ve worn me out.
I’ve heard them all my life now: pulpit reminders of the Christmas miracle. Pastors shackled to the weighty annual burden of reminding their congregations of the extent of the mystery. The incarnation. And these seasonal injunctions have somehow become unbearable. I find myself annoyed. Like how I feel when a parent forgets they’ve told this joke before. I feel the urge to stand up in the middle of church and scream “I know! I know the whole thing!” Mary (how obedient! How wise beyond her years!”) Joseph (“How trusting!”) The innkeeper. The shepherds. The star. The Magi. The little town. The baby God. I have searched for some unexplored nuance to the tale. A fresh angle that would stun me into quiet contemplation.
I’ve got nothing.
I’m certainly not alone, and I feel the pastor’s plight. What else can one do but retell the story, in earnest tones, begging people to understand. You can pound your pulpit, sing it from the stage, or dress it up with Advent candles, but it amounts to the same bleeding heart message: “for you! God became man for you!” And most ears, like mine, sighing in response. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt rather similar. We imagine them awash in pathos, but let us give them the grace to be human. Mary, who for all her chosen-ness was still just a very young girl, birthed a child. All Joseph had been able to supply to the entire event was an ill-timed trip to his hometown where he’d clearly neglected to make arrangements. It seems likely they’d expected the Messiah’s birth to be met with some sort of supernatural fanfare. Fiery horses or something. “That’d be just like God,” Joseph probably thought, seeing his new family in such dire straits,”to come through at the last moment with an army of archangels to deliver us all out of the cold.”
But, no. Mary pushed out a baby, and that was, essentially, that. They heard about some heavenly choirs secondhand, which surely seemed a bit unfair. The shepherds left, and that was the end of it. They sat in their stable all night, just the three of them.
“So,” Mary thinks. “That’s it?”
“So,” I think now, in my pew, hearing the story again. “That’s it?”
And God? How does He feel now, if God feels at all? His swift and terrible love, thundering from Heaven in bone-knocking waves, charging every dot and tittle of reality with glory. God, who built all this, set us down in it, and set about finding ways to show us that He loved us. He built a universe, and then dove in after us when we started to drown. He beat His son to death. He comes again to judge the quick and the dead. “Good tidings of great joy which will be for all people!” He bellows.
And I yawn, like a teacher having to pretend to admire a child’s drawing. “Yes, God. Very nice.”