The Christian church is accustomed to calling this time of year (the run-up to Christmas) Advent, from the Latin for “arrival” (like your plane about to land). From God’s standpoint, of course, it could just as well be called Departure, since it also represents the time when his Son was stepping out of heaven into human garb. Now, I know the whole deal about how December isn’t even close to the time of year Jesus was actually born (best estimates put it in spring, around mid-April: you know, America’s render-unto-Caesar time, which could put a whole new twist on the notion of “Christmas gifts”) (not to mention, “coal in your stocking”) (and don’t even start with “Scrooge”!), but we do owe a great debt to our (“our” if you have European ancestry) pre-Christian forbears, whose holidays and customs the church stormed in and grabbed up, like shoppers pounding down the doors of the mall after Thanksgiving, decking them out in Christianized apparel and contributing to our current season of fa-la-la.
The Christmas celebration, as it’s enjoyed in much of the Western world (if you can get past all the cranks and noodges who kvetch about how there’s a “war on Christmas”, and make yours miserable if you say Happy holidays instead of the orthodox Merry Christmas), has indeed inherited and accumulated or invented a wonderful range of festive and heart-warming customs, not counting fruitcake, that should be enjoyed by everyone willing or able to take part in any of them. And those who do celebrate should show the real Christmas spirit by actively welcoming and including those who aren’t usually included in Christian customs, or especially who have no one else to include them at that time of year.
But about 2,010 years ago (give or take: we don’t have that calendar point pinned down, either), back at the run-up to Jesus’ arrival/departure, the little Son was about to enter a rather different scene. His working-class family (stepdad was a tektôn, Greek for a builder in stone or wood, contract laborer, or even general contractor—and yes, for concerned traditionalists out there, it included carpentry)—uprooted by a disruptive census that required people to relocate to the head-of-family’s ancestral town; making an arduous journey of nearly 100 kilometers, by foot or on donkey, with a very pregnant, teenage mom (probably no older than 15, perhaps as young as 13); jostling for space at (probably) a relative’s home when they reached Bethlehem; finding no room in the guest chamber (the “inn”); making do downstairs in the indoor stable (yeah—all you who use hand sanitizer are freaking out about now)—yep, they faced what most would agree are more than the usual hassles approaching Christmastime. (Mary: “I’m not even gonna bother with cards this year. And shopping? Really?!“)
And all that was only the start. Like a bizarre theme-park ride (in a very demented park), the life of Jesus and his family only got weirder from there. The night poor little Mary finally gives birth—and like she could rest after that?—a bunch of scruffy (probably, um, sheep-scented) shepherds show up—likely after having gone to a few other places around town, alarming the neighbors by their unusual quest for a baby (“Let me see if I got this right: you guys roam into town from camping out in the hills, smelling like—well, never mind—and you bunch of men are looking for a baby?! No problem! Make yourselves at home while I call the police, plus Child Protective Services. Holiday eggnog, anyone?”). A week or so later, as Mary and Joseph are at the temple performing a ceremonial duty for the boy, some crazed old guy appears out of nowhere, snatches Jesus from his mom’s arms, and goes off on a ramble about how Jesus is the One sent from God, plus as a bonus, he gives Mary the encouraging forecast that a lot of people will hate her son and that her own heart would be broken by tragedy (Mary: Note to self: leave this part out of next year’s family Christmas email). Not too long after, an entire caravan of Iraqi Zoroastrian priests plus entourage pulls into town, no doubt to the thrill of all the kids (“Mom, is it Cirque du Soleil?”), track down the hapless Mary and Joseph and son, and make a big fuss over him like the old man had done, only this group really knows how to give Christmas gifts. And then that night! Joseph can’t even get away in his sleep: an angel shows up with the cheery news that the king is out to find their son and kill him. (Joseph: “Whatever happened to ‘tidings of comfort and joy’?!”) So they pack up and take off for Egypt, because in those days, Jewish people and their neighbors weren’t yet getting all medieval on each other’s donkeys.
And you probably know most of the story from there (or if not, you can read all about it in the biblical gospels). After a couple more years, when Jesus’ family finally returned from Egypt to their home in Nazareth, his life seemed to get more or less nondescript for the next few decades (so much so that it wasn’t even worth writing about, a gap which led later researchers on fevered quests to figure out where Jesus had been in the mean time, because He must have been studying in some ashram or something! because, I mean, later he came back all guru’d out and everything.
But what a start to a life! And this is the one they call Prince of peace. I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to know a Prince of peace, I’d want to know one who had been through a lot of the same kinds of misadventure, chaos, and crap that I or any of the rest of us have gone through. To really know how to bring people peace, you have to have known what it’s like to go through hell. To my thinking, the fact that he started going through that before he was even born, and that it kept on in the earliest days of his innocent new life, has that cachet of authenticity about it, as if across 2,000 years he’s saying: Yep, I know a bit about what the rest of you go through; I had a taste of it myself, right from the start and even before.
And the fact that this story gets told and retold around the world, every year (never mind whether the dates are right), says a lot about how, for him, it wasn’t just a weird childhood story to pass down to the grandkids; it’s a living memory and real association he has with everyone else, in all the demented misadventures and horrors we may go through—a word of empathy and encouragement from him: I know what you’re going through. I know, I remember, I see it, I am with you.
That’s one of his other names, too: Immanuel— “God with us”. The God who is really there. The Jesus who is with us when nobody else is, and when everybody else is, except that everybody wants to either stifle or harass or kill us.
The Jesus who, a few decades on after the bizarre Christmas story, saw those predictions and threats catch up to him, as finally he was uprooted from not just his home but from life altogether, ganged up on by people who wanted him to find no room anywhere in their world, and who then made good on the death threats that had hounded him 30-some years earlier.
And his Christmas card from those earlier years still echoes at that moment: Yes, I know a bit about what the rest of you go through; I know, I remember, I see it, I am with you.
Frankly, all that sounds pretty horrible for a Christmas greeting; I’m sure all the rest of us (me included) would rather tuck down into the comfort of Christmas carols, cinnamony candles, warm fuzzy clothes and blankets, a crackling fire, colorful lights, decorated tree with presents, creamy hot chocolate or eggnog, lots of other sweet treats, and loved ones all around. Maybe even the near-psychotic experience of shopping at the mall, for those of a more Bear Grylls-type, risk-taking nature.
But somewhere outside, maybe not even far away, are those who may want all those things, but don’t have them, can’t find them, or have lost them; or maybe who no longer want them, because it’s easier to shut them out along with the pain of some deeper heartaches in life. There are some who have all those Christmas treasures, but whose lives have closed in on them from tragedy or illness or a relationship fragmenting like a dropped ornament. And one way or another, in myriad individual stories, they don’t know that the Jesus whose life on Earth began and ended imploding in chaos and tragedy is as much with them too as he was with his parents long ago, or with the comforted people today by the fireside, or with his other, grieving friends long ago when they came to pay helpless respects and were confused to find an empty tomb.
And all the people today may not see him. But they can see us, whether at home, or next door, or on the street, or at work or school, or at the bank or supermarket or Starbucks or [gulp!] mall. And in the sometimes hair-raising, sometimes dull and numbing, sometimes heartrending and agonizing adventures of their lives, we have the chance, all year around (you know those sayings about “Christmas all year long”? this is how to do it!), to let people see Jesus’ compassion in our eyes, his heart in our hearts, his hands in ours reaching out to lift them up—to see him in us as we stand by their side in whatever way we can. Sometimes it might seem all we can do is some feeble gesture, like a smile or offering to help if we can (but they know there’s really not much we can do)—but you never know how very much that can mean to someone; your kindness may have come at just the time when no one else had any kindness at all to spare them. Never underestimate the power of the “feeble”: a baby in a stable is pretty feeble, too, really.
This is the time Jesus can arrive in their lives, his Advent for them—his time to let them know he’s been with them through life’s adventures and this time will not depart, but is with them to the very end—when one day perhaps we can all settle down around a fire with savory treats (maybe even fruitcake[!], for those who like it) and tell the stories over again, to see who had the more unlikely adventures.
But we will see that Jesus himself was there with us through them all.
Happy Advent, merry Christmas, and your Christmas gift is the one that you give—your love and compassion and friendship and stand-by-side encouragement, to everyone you meet, because those are the most treasured gifts of all, and you don’t know whose trees need those gifts under them the most.
Here is a wish for the world, far and near, from a longago song (well, 1984):