“Why?” is a constant refrain in our house. Our two year old daughter is just in that stage. I’m not even sure she understands the meaning of the question, yet she asks it over and over again. One recent day, exasperated after what seemed like a hundred “whys”, I finally answered with a “why” of my own. “No!” she replied in that indignant, self-righteous toddler voice. “You can’t ask way. I ask why.”
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” This year, as we prepared for Christmas with our daughter, I realized that heard afresh, with plenty of “whys” thrown in, this tale that has grown soft with sentiment and cloudy with layered memories becomes soberingly strange.
Consider the heavily pregnant Mary bumping along on the back of the burro all those 80 odd miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem. In those days, travel meant contending with thieves and wild animals. It brought complete exposure to the elements. It entailed begging shelter for the night from strangers. Surely the irony of being homeless and perhaps hungry refugees in Bethlehem – an ancient city whose name means “house of bread”– did not escape Joseph and Mary as they sought sanctuary in a cold, dirty barn, as the stench of manure mingled with their own sweat and blood as groans of pain and gasps of fear gave way tears of joy and terror.
Luke is careful to emphasize the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth by placing the nativity story in its political and social context. As the tale opens, Augustus and Quirinius are seen flexing their empirical muscles: forcing peasants like Joseph and Mary to make hard dangerous journeys so that they can be counted and taxed. In those days, Roman rulers claimed to be divine figures, sons of God, and demanded the worship of all Rome’s citizens. One commentator explains that: “Wondrous births and the public announcements of the ‘good news’ of those births had become a standard part of the public myth of Roman rulers” (Lewis R. Donelson, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 1, p. 119). So when the angel brings the good news of great joy not to some royal court, but to the lowest of the low class, the shepherds, and makes the startling claim that this child of two nobodies is a savior, Luke’s narrative boldly and almost comically co-opts the rituals of this Roman elite.
Last week, I received a call on behalf of a young woman who lives on the north side of Minneapolis. She was pregnant when the tornado struck in May. The storm rendered her homeless. Her child was born and they had no place to go. A non-profit group helped her rent an apartment, but their funds were running out and mother and child needed more time together at home before she ventured out to look for work.
This- I thought to myself- is how it happens. God slips into the world to be with us not with the power of a ruler, but in the ordinary, vulnerable, humble authority of an infant, shivering in makeshift rags, cradled in the hay of an animal’s feeding trough. God takes flesh not among the comfortable safety of the elite, but in the arms of a young woman precariously housed among tarp-covered roofs, bravely surviving the chaos of a disaster.
“Silent Night, Holy Night”, we sing. “The child to be born will be holy” is the explanation Gabriel offers Mary when she asks, “how can this be?”. “Holy is God’s name!” Mary declares in her song of praise known as the Magnificat. Holy, holy, holy. It’s one of those churchy words we throw around without much thought. Perhaps we equate holiness with piety. Maybe we imagine that to be holy is to be especially religious. Yet both the Hebrew and Greek words for “holy” carry the root meaning of separation. To be holy is to be set apart, to be different.
In her essay, “Glimpse of the Holy: Advent with a Toddler”, Kathleen Hirsh muses over holiness. “… [my son] was standing beside me, a solemn three-year-old holding a stuffed red heart that he’d taken from the tree. “Mommy,” he announced. “Pretend that I am Gabriel.” I looked at the chocolate around his lips, the sleeves of his Henley rolled up for wings, and his utterly sincere and serious eyes. “Kneel down, Mommy,” he instructed me. I obliged. Gabriel and I were face-to-face, inches apart, in front of the stove. “Mary,” he addressed me. “You shall have a son. And this,” he extended the plush red heart toward my face. “This is your holy.” Here, he paused for emphasis. “You must carry your holy with you always, Mommy—even around your neck— so that Jesus will know that he is holy too.” (Christian Century Magazine, November 23, 2011)
The sheer ordinariness of this birth, its terrifying vulnerability, and its raw, earthy humanity, this is our holy. This night, God sets apart all of life, with all its “whys”, to be holy, to be inhabited by the divine life and illuminated in the sacred light. Let us carry with us always this good news of great joy! Amen.