On Saturday I read a blog post* about the nativity story. The description of Mary and the animals and the blood and the baby is fleshy. Funny. Real. And sharp. I’m drawn in by the wit and candor of the author and keep reading until the end, where I am surprised at the wrap-up. There are no claims of deity. No religious hooks. No message of Emmanuel, God-with-us. It’s just a story of a teenage mother and father, bumbling around in a dirty stable trying to figure out this thing called parenthood and what it means to love and be a family. (Which, let’s admit, is about as spiritual as it gets, figuring out how to love the people we live with.)
I scroll down and see someone’s appreciative comment. I read it three times over: We don’t do the Jesus-thing but we want to embrace the meaning of Christmas. I sense her gratitude for the re-telling devoid of religious agenda, making it palatable and accessible.
I also feel a bit sick to the stomach. Which seems overly-dramatic. Even writing it here now, makes me self-conscious. The comment is understandable. Many of my dearest friends could easily write the same. We don’t do the Jesus thing.
I don’t blame the people I love and respect for feeling uncomfortable with the Jesus story. It can lead to all kinds of trouble, like trying to explain who God is to your children when you’re not even sure yourself. Like the problem of Christianity and it’s sordid history. Like questions about the priorities of churches today, and heaven forbid, politics that make your hair stand up on the back of your neck. Like exclusion and gate-keeping and pointing at who’s right and who’s wrong. Who’s in and who’s out.
I also don’t blame my friends who are indifferent about the whole thing altogether. Who don’t mind hearing the Christmas story once or twice and then moving on with their lives. The story hasn’t made much of a difference in the Christians they know or work with, so what does it matter? It’s easier to let people believe what they want without getting too worked up about theology and fundamentals. To try and get along without making a big deal about a controversial man who had a penchant for stirring the pot.
And yet, somehow, it breaks me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been reading Luci Shaw poems of the incarnation** every night before bed, or because the comment followed such a visceral description of the birth, or why, exactly. It’s not like I’m surprised that someone out there isn’t all Jesus-y. Most people aren’t. But still, it sticks with me.
On Sunday morning we are scrambling to get to church. Stan and I are in the Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, and the girls are part of the children’s choir. We should be in the vehicle already and are yelling at each other to get out the door. Stan can’t find the tuner. Vivi doesn’t want to wear her cute black boots and is coughing and snotty. Susanna is still out of breath and fatigued from her bout with pneumonia. Belén’s throat is sore and swollen and my voice is raspy too. The guitar bangs out the door and into the cold air. When we finally get to church and Stan is pulling the striped Joseph-costume over his head, he’s still asking why we have to do this. None of it feels very spiritual. Or meaningful. Or transcendent. Obligatory would be a more accurate description.
Then Stephanie hands me her newborn daughter, the one cast as baby Jesus. Ah yes, the baby. She’s fast asleep and I tense my shoulders to make a nest for her that’s as cozy as her mother’s. We need something to wrap her in. “Hey,” I yell at Jennifer, while the kids are bouncing around us like popcorn in hot oil. “I forgot we need swaddling clothes!” She shushes the children and hands me an old scarf. Now we are ready to start.
The kids tromp onto the stage; the sheep with their floppy ears, the wise-men with their dollar-store crowns, the shepherds in their terry cloth and an assortment of barn animals. Verna starts playing the piano, which is our cue to come in. I sit in my chair beside the manger and hold baby Jesus, whose tiny rib cage presses in and out against mine. I look down at her scalp and study her hair-line, her pursed lips, the nose that is just as perfect as every other baby nose, and all I want to do is cry.
I feel like I need to warn Stan. “I’m feeling really emotional” I whisper sideways. He looks at me and doesn’t say anything. The children continue singing their song about the stranger in the straw.
Soon it’s our turn. Stan grabs his guitar, Susie her violin, and Belén takes the mike. We mess up right away and have to start over again. When I come in on the chorus I feel like I’m barely making a sound. My voice is hoarse and my harmony line is wobbly. All the while I’m holding the baby, the stranger the barn animals want to know more about.
“His name is Jesus. I can’t believe God chose me to be his mother,” I whisper into the mike after we are done singing. It doesn’t feel so much like acting now. Or cliché script material. I really can’t believe it. God chose a human mother for himself. God chose human skin. With cradle cap. God chose tiny ribs. God chose colic and gas and indigestion. God chose the frustrations of toddler-hood. God chose to be a refugee. God chose “to be acquainted with our grief.”**
“His name is Jesus,” I repeat, trying to keep my voice steady. “He will be called Counsellor.” I look down at the infant chest, heaving up and down in my arms with vulnerability. I am mute with emotion. This is ridiculous, I pep-talk myself, it’s just a puny little line. But nothing makes it past the gigantic lump in my throat.
Stan says my next words for me. “Almighty God…”
And I join in on the final, “Everlasting Father.”
The play continues and I keep holding Jesus. I don’t want to stop being Mary. I don’t want to stop being so near to Christmas.
Later that afternoon, when everything is over and we’re at home, I go back to the blog post I can’t stop thinking about. I read the comment again–the one about not being into the Jesus-thing. All of a sudden something is different. I feel bubbly and light. The comment doesn’t seem disturbing, in fact, it’s more comedic than anything. I want to shout and laugh. “It’s okay if you don’t do the Jesus-thing! God’s got it! He’s way ahead of you!” He’s made a gigantic swoop-turn out of history, like a hockey player who changes directions in the blink of an eye and dekes out the defense. The move makes me want to clap big mitts together, stomp on the bleachers and clang cowbells.
Yes, yes, yes! God came down. IT doesn’t matter if you’re into the Jesus thing or not. Even if you don’t do Jesus, Jesus does you. That’s the craziness of the whole story. That’s why we get into bath robes and show our bare feet and pale hairy legs in front of the church, two-thousand years later.
A baby was born and turned the cosmos around. Even if you’re not into Jesus, even if you have religious baggage or find it all politically uncomfortable or you don’t know how to tell your kids the bible story, it doesn’t matter. Indeed, it’s precisely because of this indifference or confusion, that Jesus came. This is the bizarre news. This is the hilarity of Christmas. That God put on flesh to be with us whether we recognize him or not.
With love and cowbells,
If none of this resonates with you, or if you think I’m dead wrong, thanks for making it this far. I’m honoured you’re here and am interested in your comments.
*see Liz James Writes
**I know at least three of you who will love BC poet, Luci Shaw (if you’re not already reading her)! I used the phrase “acquainted with our grief” because I’d just read her poem, A Blessing for the New Baby.