Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Meaning of Christmas: The Nativity

The Nativity is really a frightening story with a happy ending. It had to be full of tough emotion for its participants. And we usually skip those emotions and go straight to the happy ending. We forget the uncertainty in the happiness of the result.

Consider Joseph, with a pregnant wife on the back of his one donkey in the cold. They didn't have a lot of luggage--not much extra food, not enough money. Not a lot of blankets or special clothes or the tools of his carpenter trade. They're on the road. That displacement has been ordered by the Roman government, so that a census may be taken. It's a sign that things are not going to be the same--they are a conquered people and soon to be a taxed people. They have a local despot for a king, a distant administration who props that king up. Joseph is supposed to protect Mary in the large and small things--and what's large and what's small had to change perspective every other minute.

And for all Mary had an Annunciation, she had to be worried something would go wrong or she wouldn't measure up. She's on the back of a donkey. She has to go to the bathroom now, but they also have to keep going. She has no women to help her with the layette. No midwife she knows will be there to cry on during labor pains. No midwife, even a stranger, guaranteed at all. Her first child will be born among strangers and maybe even in the dirt.  There's no guarantee in the Annunciation that she'll live through labor either. It only guarantees that she is chosen and she is blessed. That leaves a lot of room for fear of the unknown. Because being chosen is not usually an experience without suffering.

The inn they found was probably a tavern. It was a gathering place for all kinds of people--reliable and unreliable. More of the unknown. If it was crowded with others like Joseph, just trying to fulfill responsibility, we don't know it. We never hear about them. At best it was full of tired and cranky people, but possibly revelers and gossips and people who needed a little reform. The innkeeper and his staff were slammed with work. The permission to use the stable for a Birth might have been a kind impulse. But that innkeeper also didn't (as far as we know) ask anyone to make room for a pregnant woman and worried father. Maybe he did ask, and nobody had compassion. Maybe they had reasons why the innkeeper should ask someone else. Maybe the innkeeper didn't have time to ask, or maybe he didn't care enough to ask. Maybe the stable was cleaner anyway.

So Mary had a baby in a stable. It was not her husband's baby, but somehow that had been resolved--through love, or faith, or need on one side or both sides. Joseph would have stabled the donkey. He would have shoveled the floor of the stall and piled up hay while she bit her lip and waited or even possibly fussed. Possibly he snapped a little, because he felt inadequate to the task. They would have been scared to death--no matter how much meaning was packed into it for them--and possibly even more afraid, given the meaning.

She lived through labor. She had a baby on straw instead of the side of a road. It was better than their worst fears, and hard to reconcile with the prospect of a large gift to the world.

They would have changed the hay. They would have listened for threat from the tavern, from Roman centurions, from the weather, from animals bigger than a woman lying on straw. Still it was a miracle. It was good.

The shepherds knew to come, but no town or tavern resident on record came. The baby was viewed and watched and exclaimed over by men with low-paying menial jobs, uncertain hygiene, rough habits. But he was loved immediately.

It is a remarkable account, you know, just for its human effort. And this particular birth, in this particular set of conditions, later changed the world and the language of the spirit. For most of us who celebrate Christmas, it is the onset of our religious beliefs. It changed our understanding of the Divine, and where that Divine is present.

But even those with a different religion, or no religion, can ponder this and perhaps see meaning in it. They can see why decency matters, why worry and care are tied, why life is precious and poverty is hard. How much we need each other and how much we must do for ourselves, the very best we can.

Infinite possibility was born in soiled straw by one scared woman with one worried man in attendance, and a host of threats, large and small, all around.  And that infinite possibility was, and is always, a miracle.


The Observer said...

Ann T:

Wonderful! It fits in with the sermon series just concluded at my church about the journey to Bethlehem. In fact, I invite you--and anyone else interested--to watch the sermons on line at

I think you will really enjoy them and our academically minded pastor will give you plenty to mull over!

Blessings to you

The Observer

Slamdunk said...

Great stuff Ann T.

Thanks for the insights on the most important birth in history.

Several years ago, I remember reading a fictional account from Joseph's perspective, and I remember reading that author struggled with the book for years before he felt comfortable with it.

Carolina Linthead said...

Amen! Thank you for this. It sums up so much of what The Bug and I have written about in our Christmas poetry over the last two decades. The question often is "how to we get this back to the manger?" In other words, how do we get back to the fundamental story of the breaking of the strange silence that lingered between the divine and humanity, a silence we believe to have been broken with a tiny baby's first cries. Miraculous, indeed! I think I'll post two of our early poems that deal with this theme as my Christmas post.

Bob G. said...

Excellent recounting of the first Christmas story.

Given what we all enjoy today, this does sound a bit on the "risky" birth in such deplorable conditions and under an oppressive government.

And yes, a very happy ending...for ALL of us (to remember).

Well said.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
I am so glad it resonates with other things you are thinking about!

Blessings to you too,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Slamdunk,
Thank you--
I have been thinking about this for awhile, but not as long as the author you mention. I am interested in reading that book!

I didn't struggle as hard as he did with it.

Happy season to you,
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear C.L.,
Well, that is a fine compliment--that any post I might make would stir things up like that! I will be sure to come over and read those poems on Christmas day!

You and The Bug have a happy Christmas, and safe travels.

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
You should know I started thinking about this after you posted about the manger scene that wasn't allowed to stay up on your blog. It "got me to thinkin'".

I also think it's good to remember the uncertainty, because times are so uncertain now. Our big stories and beliefs are frequently whitewashed so that everything is nice in them. But they struggled then, and we can be inspired now by the struggle.

We shall overcome, my good friend,
we shall overcome.

Happy Holidays,
Ann T.

Momma Fargo said...

I love the fact that the Nativity was written here in your post. It still means a lot when I pass by our city park and they still put it up..even tho every once in awhile we have protestors.

Ann T. said...

Dear Momma Fargo,
I am glad you enjoyed!
And Merry Christmas to you--it'll be a strange on probably, but it can still be a good one.

Ann T.