Each year in December, the noise, anxiety and party going of the season tend to obscure the reality we celebrate. But this year, in the midst of our country’s troubling economic problems and the uncertainty they breed, some of us may have a hard time finding any joy in Christmas.
It’s worth remembering that the world we know today is not so different from the world of the first Christmas.
For Mary, the Jewish teenager, there was nothing sentimental about being pregnant and unmarried in the Galilean hill country. She had her faith in God. She also had the protection of her betrothed. But whether she had the understanding of her local relatives and friends is another matter. Women of her day could be, and sometimes were, stoned for perceived adultery. The warmth from her cousin Elizabeth may not have been widely shared.
Nor could Mary’s story have been easy for Joseph. No matter how great his faith, no matter how vivid the angel’s message, no matter how good his heart, he still likely struggled with very human temptations to doubt and confusion. In fact, the Eastern Church captures his humanity beautifully in her traditional iconography of the Nativity. The icons often portray Joseph apart from the manger scene, turned slightly away from the mother and child, deep in thought.
The road to Bethlehem would have been dangerous and physically demanding. Bandits and brigends were common. The Roman occupiers could be brutal. The inability to find shelter at an inn would have been more than inconvenient; it would have been life-threatening. And few of us today can really imagine the squalor of giving birth in a stable or a cave.
Yet, this is what Pope St. Leo the Great called the “birthday of life.” This is what we celebrate every Christmas. The wonder of Christmas is the humility God chose for himself, purely out of love-love for us.
God loved us enough to send us his only Son. He loved us enough to take on our poverty, our indignities and fears, our hopes, joys, sufferings and failures-and our flesh-in order to speak to us as one of us. He became man to show men and women how much God loves them. He was born for that purpose. He lived for that purpose. He died and rose again for that purpose.
In these last few days of Advent, give yourself, your friends and your family an early gift of the season: Read and pray over the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. The real story of Christmas is much earthier, truer and far more powerful than anything we’ll ever see in a department store window.
Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Jesus is Yeshua, which means “God saves.” When Jesus later preaches in his public ministry that “I am the way the truth and the life,” he is only restating the miracle that begins in Bethlehem. Our Redeemer is born in a stable; He is born to deliver us from sin and restore us to eternal life. This was the meaning of the birth on that first Christmas. This is what we remember in 2008. And that is a birthday worth celebrating.
May God grant you and all those you love a very merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!