Christmas Eve, late at night, burning the Advent wreath down, listening to Christmas hymns, the children and Regina finishing the decorating, and contemplating the Nativity in a year that has challenged us all like few others. I’m not thinking of peaceful nativities and Hallmark images.
I’m thinking this Christmas Eve of how much the real nativity speaks to the weariness in so many hearts this year. Specifically, I’m thinking of my best friend who endured three heart surgeries and almost died as many times, of Father Luke McCann who was the most influential mentor in my life who died on Columbus Day, of Superstorm Sandy having laid waste my community, and the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary.
It’s been quite a year, yet the story we tell tonight reveals the main characters, not as humans without a care because of God’s design for their lives, but as characters who suffered greatly because of God’s design for their lives: a design that required the deepest faith to accept, and the most difficult burden to bear.
“Faith,” as Father Luke McCann would remind me, “isn’t for when we have all the answers, but for when the roof is caving in and we don’t know what’s coming next.”
Mary had to endure a lifetime of taunts, of deep suspicion and gossip over her fidelity to Joseph, and her divine son’s legitimacy. She had to walk Joseph through the doubt about her fidelity and sanity, and it would still require the assistance of angelic visions to convince Joseph to stay with her.
Then there was the unimaginable selfishness of a society that had become so calloused and coarsened to life that not one person would give up their bed for a young girl in labor.
The indignity of a barn awaited the birth of the King of Kings. They wouldn’t be long in the barn because the government, in the person of the king, had decided to butcher every male under the age of two in an attempt to slaughter Mary and Joseph’s child. They would need to live on the road, on the run, as they fled into Egypt; far from either of their families, and with none of the help that a new and young mother needs from the older women of the family.
Homelessness, death, privation, targeting of babies for death…
Not much has changed in 2,000 years. But God came to earth and showed from the moment of His human conception that He would identify with the poor and the least among us. Having escaped murder several times, He would eventually suffer that indignity as well. The nativity narratives tell us not only of God’s great condescension in taking on our humanity, but in His great identification in all things with the suffering of the world. It is the coupling of the great condescension and the great identification with the poor and the least that point to the majesty of God, a majesty whose might is shown in His infinite mercy and forgiveness.
When people look to the tragedies of this year and ask, “Where was God?”, what is really being asked is why God could permit such evil. For me this evening, as I look at the nativity set, the answer is that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph suffered mightily as well. I often wonder what went through Mary and Joseph’s minds and hearts as they contemplated all of those children slaughtered in the effort to get their child. The joy of the birth swallowed up as their hearts must have broken beyond description.
God was right there, physically there, in the midst of it all. So it is that He remains right here with us in the midst of it all.
If it’s true that there was a murderous Herod with designs on the child’s life, then it is also true that there were Magi who returned by a different route, having left gifts to sustain the young family in Egyptian exile.
If it’s true that there was the indignity of a stable, it’s also true that there was the great Theophany, when Heaven opened onto earth and the Angels sang.
If it’s true that there was the parsimony of the residents in the inns, there was the adoration by the shepherds and the Magi.
If it’s true that Mary suffered ridicule and the opprobrium of the women of Israel, it is true that her fidelity to the Father and the Son was rewarded greatly in Heaven.
If it’s true that the slaughter of innocents heralded the first coming of our Lord in His humble origins, then it is true that this mass slaughter of innocents in the womb and the classrooms of America and the world will herald the Second Coming of Jesus in glory.
So, on this quiet night as I reflect on a year that has tried our souls, I contemplate the sufferings of Mary and Joseph, of the mothers and fathers, grandparents and families of Herod’s victims, but also on all of the goodness that God sent into their darkness. I also think of the immense outpouring of charity in the wake of that killer storm in October.
I praise God for our modern Magi; the thousands of volunteers who came from around the nation to help us rebuild, for the endless convoys of truckloads of food, clothing, and supplies. I praise God for the goodness that so much suffering elicited–mainly from church groups acting in the name of Jesus.
I praise God for the outpouring of love, and prayers, and toys for the children and residents of Sandy Hook and Newtown.
I praise God that evil never has the last word, and always evokes a far greater expression of goodness and virtue.
I praise God for all of the good people whom God has sent into my life, whose goodness has been the sign of His constant love and presence, especially for Regina and the children.
Most of all, I praise God for the witness of Mary and Joseph. In their darkest hours they never questioned God’s presence, or His love, or His goodness, or His fidelity. Their faith told them that there was a purpose beyond all human understanding and that He was with them always. They are our perfect role models in this difficult year.
Theirs is a nativity for our time.