A reflection on the readings for Christmas by Janine Goodwin
This year, the lectionary offers a choice between the simple, elegant birth story in Luke and the sonorous and somewhat abstract glories of John, and despite the choices and the multiple commentaries on each, I keep being reminded of a young couple I knew when I was a music student in my early twenties.
They were no more than four years older than I, maybe less. They were good kids, thoughtful, responsible. They had gotten married the previous year, and had just had their first baby. I knew they were living on half a worn shoestring and incredibly busy, both going to school full-time, and I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than having a baby. My sentimental fantasies did not include diapers, screams, spit-up, or weird rashes, and I had never experienced any sleep deprivation more serious than a single all-nighter pulled on the eve of a deadline, followed by a long, peaceful daytime nap.
One day, after a rehearsal, I was busy telling the young father how happy he must be. He looked at me wearily and said, “Yes, I’m happy. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s not easy. Let me tell you what it’s like to have a baby. Imagine you hear that someone you really love is coming to visit. You’re really excited and you run around getting ready and you just can’t wait to see them. Then they get here, and you’re so happy to see them and you love them so much more than you thought you could and it’s wonderful . . . and then they NEVER LEAVE. Your life is never going to go back to the way it was before.”
For the first time, I realized how tired he looked.
The story of the incarnation is the story of a huge change, not just in the lives of Mary and Joseph, but in time itself, and it is a story of change in our lives. In the presence of the Word made flesh in space and time, we find out what our illusions were and what the demands of a new life really are.
Christmas is the test of our Advent practice: it’s when we will, if we watch ourselves, find out whether we were really preparing to be open to a new thing that God is doing or indulging in a season of holy procrastination. It is possible to listen to the prophecies and be sure we know what others didn’t, to get lost in the beauty of the language and the music that has grown up around it, and forget that we, like others before us, can miss the point. It is quite possible, since we are human, that we can hear a familiar story without remembering how shocking it is, how demanding the Gospels are. It is possible to forget that Jesus offended the good people by hanging around with sinners and outcasts and took the extraordinary step of treating women as students and friends. It is possible to forget that Jesus came into the power struggles and injustices of the world and died of them because he challenged everyone’s assumptions and didn’t play by anyone’s rules. It is possible to forget that prophecies are strange, we misinterpret them, and God always surprises us and calls us in directions we could never have expected.
Should we rejoice? Yes. Should we expect everything to be happy, comfortable, and easy? No. After the infancy narratives and the one haunting vignette of Jesus as a difficult teenager comes John the Baptist, prophet and wild man. He’s already there in John, upsetting pretty much everybody. The birth of Jesus Christ is many things, but it is not an assurance that everything will go smoothly. There will be love, healing, and work that challenges us; ultimately, all will be well; in the meantime, the only guarantee is that God is with us, working in our lives, and will never leave. Emmanuel, God with us. It is enough. Are we ready for that? Are we ready for the tenderness and the mess, the fatigue and the joy, of a life with Jesus?