Have you ever wondered what that first night was like for Mary and Joseph? We, of course, focus on the birth of the Son of God and all that goes with that miracle. We understand Jesus’ birth from our own vantage point of faith. He came to save us, to show us God, to bring peace to the world, and to transform creation. But what about Mary and Joseph? What did they think and feel that night?
There was nothing special about this couple. They were just the average, run-of-the-mill peasant wife and husband expecting their first child like so many other peasant couples that night throughout the world. In fact, in that regard, they were like most of us who have held our first infant in our arms.
In February of 1978, Susan and I had perhaps the most transforming, wonderful, and challenging experience of our lives. We learned that in less than twenty-four hours we would become parents. Perhaps one day I can share with you all that happened over a forty-eight-hour period of time. But for now, let’s just say that our first night with Miriam found us stranded in a mom-and-pop motel off of I-75 in a horrible ice and snow storm.
That night and early the next morning in that cozy little motel room, Susan and I shared a most joyful and intimate moment. We had no shepherds peering into a manger or bassinet, and the only angels singing were those in our hearts. But I think we had something in common with Mary and Joseph—something that is very common to most new parents in history but uniquely intimate to each couple. And I believe we could learn something about the meaning of Christmas from such events.
But of course, their baby was uniquely special. Their baby was in some way God incarnate. The God who created this magnificent universe measured in billions of years and trillions of miles came in a helpless infant totally dependent on the care of a poor couple in a poverty-stricken province on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire. What kind of God makes that kind of entrance into this world?
First of all, all parents are struck by how tiny newborns are. We marvel at their little fingers and toes; their perfectly shaped miniscule ears and noses. And if you were like I was that night almost 43 years ago, you were awestruck, overwhelmed, and perhaps even frightened by how tiny babies are. You realize that they are now in your keeping for better or worse. They are utterly dependent on you for everything; they can’t even turn over or raise their heads. I remember at one point that night worrying whether Susan and I had what it would take to get this infant to its first birthday, much less to adulthood. But then I thought of all the idiots, imbeciles, morons, nincompoops, and ne’er-do-wells who have managed to raise children—so I thought we had at least a reasonable chance.
I think we could guess that God chose that route out of respect for our freedom and out of the knowledge that the salvation we need can come only from the inside out. God will not force the Divine Self upon us. God will not intimidate us into love and obedience or play our games of pride and pretense. God understands that when it comes to redemption and transformation, means and ends are all the same. And so, God chooses over and over again to become exposed and defenseless in our world—as vulnerable as a new born babe. We allow God to come into this world when we, like Mary and Joseph say, “Yes, we will be your vessels. Be born through us.”
Can you imagine a world without people like Mary and Joseph? A world without people like St. Francis, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa? Can you imagine a world without those persons who have revealed God to you through acts of love and compassion and through words of truth and liberation? Would you even want to live in a world without these people? And yet if we were to study the lives of such persons, we would realize that at some point, every single one of them had to take a risk and say to God, “Yes, I will be the vessel through whom your Son can be born into this world.” Every one of them could have said, “No!” Billions have said, “No!” But this world is held together by those who say, “Yes” to God.
What has amazed me the most about goodness and love, compassion and justice, peace and forgiveness is how fragile and vulnerable they are, especially when they are born afresh in the continuing human saga. Evil, hatred, prejudice, oppression, falsehoods, war, and vengeance seem to be like weeds sprouting in a flower garden. They will grow under any conditions with ruthless and choking speed. They need no tending. But goodness and love, compassion and peace, peace and forgiveness—these must be prepared for like the birth of a baby. They must be nurtured with tender hands and caring hearts. Like a new born, they are so vulnerable. And there are always Herods out to destroy what is good and innocent and which holds such precious promise. That’s the part of the Christmas we would like to forget.
And yet God continues to be born in our world in such fragile and vulnerable ways. If God is love and compassion, mercy and truth, justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation, perhaps this is the only way God can be born in this world. These qualities cannot be forced or manipulated. They can only be born and nurtured in faithful, tender, and loving ways. It would be much easier for God to split the heavens and thunder, “Now world, listen up! This is the way it’s going to be whether you like it or not. And here are my legions of angels armed to the teeth to make sure all of you toe the line!” It would be easier that way, but that would not be God if God is love and that would not be the God Jesus came to reveal.
Almost seven-hundred years ago, the great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?” And St. Francis eight-hundred years ago said, “We are the mother of Christ when we carry him in our heart and body by love and a pure and sincere conscience. And we give birth to him through our holy works which ought to shine on others by our example.”
The miracle of Christmas is staggering. The God who created this vast universe with its hundreds of billions of galaxies came to earth as an exposed, defenseless, vulnerable baby who was totally dependent on the care given by a peasant couple. But perhaps the greater lesson of Christmas is this: God seeks to be born in every time and every situation, but for reasons we can only begin to fathom, God needs us to give birth to those possibilities and opportunities for transformation and healing. In a very profound and real way, we are all Mary and Joseph in our unique time and place. We cradle the Word in our hearts and lives. Like the original Mary and Joseph, may we too be found faithful in such a way that Christmas happens not just once a year, but every day we draw breath and in every life we touch with grace and truth.