It’s Thursday, December 13, 2018 and I think I see Mary and Joseph at Superstore.
I’m loading my groceries on the conveyor when I notice them. “Mary” wears an over-sized hoodie draping off her narrow shoulders. Her chin is small and she has an overbite. Greasy blond hair, with dark roots showing, clings to her neck. The boy walks alongside and has one hand on the cart beside hers. A tattoo snakes around his skinny forearm and his baggy jeans are frayed and dirty at the hems. I’m guessing they’re 16 or 17.
Both of them lean forward to pore over their newborn buckled in the infant seat. Underneath are their groceries: a couple boxes of chocolate, Coke, some bananas, milk, pasta and diapers. Have these two dropped out of high school? And is either working? A helpless baby with parents who are mere children themselves seems like such a fragile beginning.
I don’t know how often the real Mary and Joseph washed their hair, whether or not they liked sweets or exactly how poor they were, but I’m reminded now of another fragile beginning. A dirty barn. Two young kids. And a baby sucking colostrum.
A fifty-some-year-old lady, named Pam*, sits down beside me. Both of us are early for the meeting and no one else is here so we have time to chat. She begins to tell me about traveling to Thailand earlier this year.
“Wow! What was it like?” I ask.
She gives me a vague answer and seems hesitant.
“What did you go for?” I ask. “Tourism?”
“Mostly,” She says, taking off her scarf and black-rimmed glasses that are still fogged up.
I wait for her to explain.
“Well,” she says, “…also the Buddhist thing.”
“Oh?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she answers quickly, “but don’t tell anyone.”
Now I’m confused. I’m not supposed to tell anyone she she went to Thailand? Or that she’s Buddhist? I’m grinning, but she looks serious, so I stop. Then she continues.
“I’ve been exploring Buddhism for about 15 years, and, well, I’m really into to it now.” She looks at the door. I look too. “But don’t repeat this,” she says, nervously.
“Oh, don’t worry!” I say, wanting to reassure that I’m not shocked. “I have a lot of friends who believe many different things.”
“It’s just with my job and everything I need to stay neutral. Parents are crazy these days. Once a child was pulled from my class just because I was coaching the kids with deep breathing.” She leans forward and whispers. “This town,” she says while tapping her finger on the board room table in front of us, “is a very evangelical town.” She spits out the word evangelical like it stings her tongue.
“Really?” I say. “I thought it was mostly Catholic.”
“Oh no!” She glances around the room again. “We’re only one pulpit speech away from a hate crime.”
“Mmm,” I say, still digesting her opinion.
Then she leans back in her chair and shrugs off her coat. “Well, it’s not as bad as what’s going on south of the border. But still. That’s not far off.”
We hear noise in the hallway moving in our direction.
“It’s okay,” Pam says. “I won’t be here for long. I’ve never fit in this town anyways. I’ll retire soon and move to where there are more of my ilk.”
Questions I have about the nativity:
- How long did Mary push for?
- Did Joseph catch the wet, slippery body in his hands or did they get help from a local midwife?
- Was it hard for Jesus to latch on to Mary’s breast or did his tongue and lips catch on to the act of survival right away?
- Who cleaned up the straw and the afterbirth?
- And the shepherds! Those crazy shepherds! Were they ever the same afterward? If I could be anyone in all of history I would choose to be one of them: a nobody—with no influence, power or success— warming myself by the fire when the Universe lets me in on the great cosmic secret. Those hillbilly outsiders must be laughing still.
The board room fills up, the meeting starts and an hour later it adjourns. We are walking in the parking lot when Pam picks up right where we left off. “And you?” she says, taking her car keys from her pocket. “What denomination are you?”
“I’m fascinated by Jesus.”
Pam doesn’t seem surprised. Then I add, “I’m a Christian.”
“Ah,” she laughs. “Did you meet your husband at Bible College?”
Now I’m laughing. She almost has me pegged, but not quite. “Nope, but it starts with B and it’s almost as bad. We met in Bolivia. He was designing potable water systems and I was teaching school.”
We’re both standing at our cars, now, which are parked beside each other but neither of us gets in.
“Must have been mission work,” she concludes. Then she adds kindly, “Well, it’s unfortunate all the politicians, intolerance and violence have given you Christians a bad name.”
Snow is falling and I dust my windshield with one hand and pluck the wipers to make sure they aren’t frozen to the glass with the other. Thwack. Thwack.
I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to feel alone, without community. And, if they do belong to a network of like-minds, they still act like underdogs, as if their community is somehow endangered. I sense this in both Christians and New Agers, gay and straight, conservatives and liberals, indigenous and settlers, and the rich and poor. It seems like the only thing that unifies everyone is an “us” versus “them” mentality and the fear of losing rights, losing control, losing currency, losing status, losing power and losing out.
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life… if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message Translation of Philippians 2: 1-8 from the Bible)
I swipe my credit card through the machine and watch “Mary and Joseph” in the express lane. Their baby starts crying. “Mary” unloads the chocolate and diapers while “Joseph” rolls the cart back and forth in an effort to calm the baby. This is the side of Christmas I wish Pam could see. A bizarre twist in history where Divinity becomes the underdog. How the beginning of Christendom was paved with donkey shit and some teenage outcasts, not the political prowess, prestige and violence for which it’s criticized. I dream about being a shepherd with smoke in my hair, grass on my clothes and a wildly-beating heart. Rushing toward a barn that holds a promise; a Promise who chooses to lose rights, lose control, lose power and lose out to find us.
Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice.
NOTE: Pam is not the real name of the person in this post. Other identifying details have also been changed. I forwarded a draft of this post to Pam before publishing it. Her response was to thank me for maintaining her anonymity and confirmed the fact that as a perceived member of several minority communities, she doesn’t feel safe in our town.
Also, I didn’t plan to write this when I sat down with my computer today. My most faithful follower has been begging me for a family update. I meant to comply with some newsy stories but this happened instead. Sorry Susanna, maybe next time!