Baby Jesus points us to our humanness

  • November 23, 2007
How do you prepare for Christmas? One year, when I was working in parish ministry, we decided to hold an Advent retreat. Many parishioners were eager for such a time of reflection. We arranged it well in advance, made posters, booked rooms and soon had abundant pre-registered participants.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that, on the day of the twilight retreat, the room was only half-full. Many, including some who’d originally asked for the retreat, never appeared. Quizzed later, they explained, “I’m sorry, but as the time came I was feeling crunched. I realized I’d never be ready for Christmas and couldn’t take a whole Saturday away.” So, to prepare for Christmas, they skipped the Advent retreat.

Someone I know has prepared for Christmas this year by buying a plane ticket east. Not out of an urgent desire for the east coast, but out of an urgent desire to escape family and the conflict that’s sure to break out. In my family, we used to call it the “family Christmas fight.”

In the midst of such experiences, the church’s exhortation to “wait in joyful hope” may sound a bit off. Advent urges us to look inward, possibly the last place we associate with hope. The third Advent Sunday is “Joyful” or “Gaudete” Sunday. There’s also a “Joyful Sunday” in Lent, “Laetare Sunday.” Lenten joy flows outward and goes up with trumpet blast. Advent joy, gaudere, is an inner joy that’s held and pondered, a quiet glowing — the joy of an expectant mother.  

In our society, the inner joy is harder to believe and the exhortation to turn inward harder to obey. As with my parishioners, we sometimes prefer the pressures of outward preparation to the terror of the inner world. Tucked-away grief, anger, disappointment, hurt, shame, lurk there, ready to seize hold if we dare turn inward. Perhaps it seems more likely that relief will come through external pleasures than that real joy will ever come deep inside.

Yet Advent isn’t waiting for joy to arrive. It’s joy already here, waiting to be brought forth. It asks us to be still enough to feel the joy kicking and moving inside, to be aware of what’s growing within and care for it so that it might be born.

What sort of birth are we expecting?  

Let’s not be misled by the burnished-gold images and easy promises that pass for seasonal sentiment. Let’s not be lulled by the sweet little baby Jesuses, snow-covered stables and “true meaning of Christmas” speeches, found even in our churches. These are more dangerous than the cruder manipulations of advertisers, as in, “the more you buy your children the happier they’ll be,” and “if you want to belong, you must smother your friends and relatives with material goods,” and “if your family isn’t cheerful over the holidays, you’ve done something wrong.”  

The real icon of Christmas — a baby born into poverty — points us straight to our humanness. There’s nothing new or miraculous about a woman and man with no place to sleep at night, or a woman giving birth in difficult circumstances. The twist is that God goes to great lengths to get us to look here, telling us this is where He chooses to come. Not just “appear” here, make things better and go away again, like movie angels. No, He surrenders Himself into it, into the hands of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, into poverty and confusion.  

“The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” and entrusted His life in the last place we might want to put our trust: among humans. “The creator of the universe is held by a creature,” an ancient Christmas hymn marvels. If she doesn’t feed Him, He’ll starve; if she drops Him, He’ll break.  He’s subject to the swirling of political ambition, the grinding of economic upheaval, the dangers of human emotion. And this is where He wants to be, this is where He plants glory, this is where the heavens break open and spill splendidly over into the waiting earth. This is the birth of Redemption.

How do we turn towards our humanness and poverty? How to trust that healing and redemption can be allowed there, where they’re most needed and least likely? Right in the Christmas family fight, in the anguish of a long-held grief, in the temptation to buy our way to holiness and happiness. Won’t it just be more of the same?  

Advent, and Gaudete Sunday, give a way to prepare for Christmas: take the risk to allow ourselves to feel the joy that’s deep inside. Let it knock at our lives, not from without but from within. Be still enough to feel those little feet kicking. Dare to prepare for real birth, the birth of our hopes, in the flesh, in the midst of our own lives. That’s where Christmas comes.