John’s first letter says God’s commands “are not burdensome for whoever is born of God conquers the world” (1 John 5:3-4). Our learning to trust may be the work of great happiness which leads to Christmas. Then we celebrate the fact that God “pitched his tent IN us” (John 1:14).
What’s waiting to be birthed in us? If we dismiss that possibility because we’re too old, tired, sick or angry, it’s the season to remember Elizabeth. She and her husband assumed they were too old to have a child, but John the Baptist was God’s surprise.
Another surprise was God’s choice of the most unlikely vehicle, the person who seemed least suited to bring his son into the world. Mary had four strikes against her: she was female, young, unmarried and a Jew, belonging to the ethnic group oppressed by Romans, clearly the dominant culture with all the power. But apparently God didn’t think human obstacles and categories were “flaws” in Mary. If God had approached a heavenly committee to explain the Plan for Salvation, God would have been unfazed by the ensuing chorus of criticism.
Scripture doesn’t record whether a goose was present at the Bethlehem stable. But symbolically, it would be appropriate. Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times that his family raised geese when he was a boy in Oregon. The geese mate for life, and trying to fatten up the male with some delicacy was impossible; they’d always save it for their mates.
The boy’s monthly job was to grab a goose for slaughter. As it struggled in his arms, another goose “would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me.” It would be totally terrified, but it knew something was awfully wrong, and wanted to stand with and comfort its love. The adult Jesus would do that: step forward to stand with us, sacrificing his very life. At our best, we do that for others: fearful, unsure, yet stepping forward for those we love. At this season, we gratefully celebrate holy boldness.
When we reach Christmas itself, Father Patrick Dolan recommends, “for one day, let the child in the manger overshadow the elephant in the living room.” Of course we have “issues” when we gather with our families to celebrate the feast. Old arguments can resurface nastily; old wounds can re-emerge; old habits can still grate. But all we need do to better appreciate our friends and relatives is notice how many have died; how many mourn. Despite his annoying repetitions, we’re blessed to still have Grandpa. Despite their astronomical costs, we’ll miss our children when they grow up and move away.
The Christ Child reminds us that even the small, vulnerable and insecure can make a giant contribution. As an infant, he demonstrates silently what he would say strongly as an adult: the prince of this world has no hold over me. The brute force of the Roman empire, Herod’s murderous thugs: NOTHING could stop a baby and his bewildered parents from bringing forgiveness. When God asks us to be God’s hearts, hands and home in our worlds, do we respond hesitantly or fearfully?
If so, we need the central word: Remember. The forces that drag us down and demoralize have no power because we belong to God. Even as we struggle to believe and internalize that wondrously good news, it’s giving us life. Christmas reminds us how we were saved once–and will be saved again and again and again. Jesus wants to come into our lives, take on human skin and elbows and ears, heal whatever it is that holds us back from being fully ourselves, fully God’s. Like bells on a frosty morning, the themes resound: Attend. Trust. Celebrate.