Monday of Advent Four, and here we are at Christmas Eve. Barely the fourth candle lit, and, well, it takes discipline to get to the Daily Office today. My day will be dressing the Christmas Pageant, the early Christmas Eve service, the Midnight Christ Mass, and tomorrow the Christmas Day service. Then I eat and sleep. A whirlwind, but a blessed one. Wouldn’t miss a minute of it.
I think we are finally getting the point that “inn” didn’t mean a B&B or Motel 6, but the upper room of a house, a guest room, just like the upper room at the end of Jesus’ earthly journey. Bethlehem, circa 4 BCE (or 1 CE). Too many relatives to house and feed, what with this census that the Romans imposed. So here comes a poor carpenter and his wife (Have you heard the rumors about how they had to pay him a large dowry to marry her because of her condition?) knocking at the door of a cousin ten times removed, or an uncle whom he has never met. But this is the Middle East, and they don’t need classes in Deep Hospitality. Of course, they will put them up. Let’s find a place warm enough for her to deliver. And probably she was helped by a woman who was the family midwife. And Joseph probably was shooed off to hang out with the other men upstairs. That is not the way we have told it, but that is the way that makes most sense in first century Judea. However it happened, Christ was born, a little marginalized, to a girl not out of her teens and the man who promised to protect her and the child. And, to give the Lucan version some credit, local shepherds drawn in from the hills by signs in the sky all wanted to get a look at the new child, and were stirred by that something about him that was different, and wonderful. And now rumors of a different kind (I felt warm in his presence. I smelled roses. I heard singing.).
Advent is a time of waiting, of anticipation, of the tension between yearning and patience. We use blue candles to stress our hope and faith in the coming of that Godly child. And for those of us who celebrate a purple and rose Advent as a little Lent, it is a kindly one, a hopeful one, but we also never forget that this child was born to die. The account in Matthew tells us of the evil that can be done by a tyrant who will massacre children, in fear, to protect his power. We hear tell of wise men, scholars and teachers drawn from the Gentile world to worship and give gifts, but who were not astute enough to realize that Herod was not to be trusted, but are impressed by his power, rank, and crown. Matthew tells of prophetic dreams, and a flight to save the child, another hard journey by a new mother and her newborn child. What did the cousins or uncles think? Well, that is thanks for our help. They are off again. And who were those pagan men who turned up? Can’t trust strangers, they mutter. And now we await to greet the Christ born, perhaps not in a barn, but in a safe place amongst relatives. But those narratives we learned in Scripture are important. They move us, remind us of the poor, touch our hearts as mother, strangers, and God’s creatures come to worship this special newborn child. Simple people and so-called dumb beasts are far more able to see God’s hand in this birth than the rich and famous. The waiting is almost over. Christ will be born again, and again, and again, until his coming to cleanse the whole world of sorrow and tragedy.
Was there ever a time when the Nativity was understood by all? I was shopping the other day for some fabric to shore up the costume collection for our Nativity pageant, and I was met with blank looks. What is a Nativity pageant? We have Christmas fabrics on sale. Somehow a shepherd dressed in a tunic bedecked with elves and a red nosed reindeer didn’t quite make the mark. And I was reminded again that this really is a post-Christian world. Yes, I am cheered by the number of people who do respond, a kind of secret understanding between Christians, as I am grateful to the Holy Spirit that she moves the un-churched as well as the churched to acts of kindness and mercy, especially in the holy season of Christmas. But the rest of the message is perhaps lost on those who have not heard the words, never were claimed by water and the Spirit, or have forgotten. Acts of goodness may be a nod to Christ, but until Advent and the Epiphany and the rest of Christmastide are celebrated, how much can a spiritually hungry person grasp the miracle of the child who is not only human but God incarnate? Who offers not only life eternal, but grants his mercy and love now in our short lives? Can we reclaim a bit of Christendom even in a secular world that separates church and state? How do we evangelize in the best way possible? How can we make this the New Jerusalem, His Kingdom come on earth as in heaven? Maybe that is also something to think about as we welcome the Holy Child and his Light back into the world. But I want to write about hope and goodwill and mercy, so let’s let that question simmer on the back burner. And let the Spirit do her work on us and on our neighbors.
Christmas Eve. The Nativity Pageant, with its first grade flock of sheep and choir of angels. Midnight Mass. Christmas morning Christ Mass. And then is the time for us, our embodied selves, to muddle through the gifts, the family dinner complete with the tipsy aunt or rude uncle, and eating too much, and all the feelings, good and not so good, that well up from the sometimes overwhelming input. Or share the parish dinner for the “orphans,” or serve and eat with the homeless. Or if we are alone, banish sorrow and bitterness. It is a time to turn to the Child, remembering that we can take joy in what we have. Add a prayer for those traveling, and ask the Holy Child to bless those who are with family. An evening of solitude in gratitude for the season isn’t so bad.
Now is also a good time to watch The Polar Express, and notice how Christian it is. Take heart in the Christmas Carol, and Handel’s Messiah. Watch “Call the Midwife Christmas Special.” Those are my current favorites. Choose whatever your preference or culture calls for in food, in song, in story and tradition. Know that, even in a commercialized post-Christian society, Christ is born and with us. With family gatherings, with the homeless, with the rich as well as the poor. He is with us always. Blessed Christmas to you and yours.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.