The Day has arrived. Christmas!!!!
Christmas is a time for family — beginning with the story of a very Holy Family (so now you know where I stand on that ;-). The story has been modified in interpretation over time, for who’s agenda we’ll never really know. But today, sitting in the stillness of my own home and reflecting on what I know of birth, co-generational families and culture, I offer this version, taught to me 20 years ago by a Presbyterian Minister who’d lived several years in the Middle East.
Joseph was neither a procrastinator nor a goof. He had family in Bethlehem, and he needed to return there with his pregnant wife, so they could be counted in the census. It is unlikely that they left so close to her time that Mary was in labor while they traveled, and likely that they stayed in Bethlehem with family for some time. It is probable that many branches of the family gathered together from distant parts, all there to “be counted”, filling to overflowing the modest home — built as was the custom with the “barn” connected to the inside by an adjacent wall. The word for Guest Room is, I understand, the same as for “Inn”. Perhaps, in this version, the guest space was previously occupied, and Mary and Joseph were given to rest in the common area, near the animals and the outdoors, the fire, the food and well – things comforting for a woman heavy with child.
Instead of the cold and lonely version — colored by language and sensationalism and the idea that an entire culture would turn away a young laboring woman — let’s entertain for a moment a different first family gathering, the one we have actually come to emulate as we greet our own family from far and near during this festive week. Imagine a rustic house overflowing with aunties and uncles, cousins and babies, everyone boisterous and contributing what they had to the meals, to the work, to entertaining themselves while the interminable census was conducted. Family slumbering in all corners of house and stable, or outside in tents, making good use of this reunion to catch up with each other. A celebratory air of family gathering together and the anticipation of a much prophesied Birth. Men seated around table or fire, talking politics in hushed voices and pondering the Light in the sky and what it could portend. Let us imagine the Elder Women in the family watching Mary with curiosity, knowing her time was drawing near by the way she moved, by the tired resignation in her countenance. Wise women would recognize her early labor and begin to shush children and send them out with older siblings and cousins, away from the house. Her back would be rubbed, her efforts encouraged and eased by the Aunties and Grannies, Midwives in the family. Those who knew would be waiting with anticipation the Birth of the King, foretold by prophets of old, and by those in Mary and Joseph’s own families. This was not a birth to be taken lightly, not when Joseph’s entire family was gathering in Bethlehem to “be counted”. It was a celebrated event, in the family and in the countryside and in Heaven, where choirs of Angels sang of the wonder.
I don’t think the vision of Jesus’ birth as much anticipated and welcomed, of Mary’s labor attended by women who loved and honored her as a sister, of the family having what they needed — clothing, food and shelter (and a warm, fresh manger to lay the baby in), diminishes the Miracle at all. In fact, it brings more Love, more Light, more Peace, more consolation. A King was born from very humble beginnings, but was much loved already — by angels and shepherds abiding, and by family greeting Him in celebration.
And so, maybe, this event didn’t happen around the Winter Solstice. Perhaps as many believe, it happened in the summer and was later co-opted by the church to coincide with the return of the Light in the dark of midwinter (but hello! if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, it IS celebrated in the height of the summer! We are such snobs here north of the equator).
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This phenomenon of days shortened and lengthened made me consider how we refer to life passing. As in the Christmas story, we shift words and meanings to somehow minimize our love and connection, our delight in and mutual support within family and society. We refer to our days as growing shorter at the end, but really, they don’t. Whether we have 16 hours of daylight or dark, our days remain the same — 24 hours in a day, 7 days to a week. Every day, we have the opportunity to embrace each minute and hour to the fullest. Our actual days do not grow short. Our patience might. Our abilities may change and wane, our family and social circles ebb and flow, but our days — our wonderful, magical, glorious days — continue to have 24 hours, 1440 minutes, 86400 seconds (if you check my math and find me in error feel free to leave a comment).
What grows short is our ability to take each of those days for granted. How many seconds have slipped through our fingers — seconds when a kind word or a smile would have changed an encounter with someone? How many minutes spent thinking about the ways we could show love and attention, but didn’t? How many hours spent in futile endeavors that didn’t add value to our — or anyone else’s — life? As we embrace this Day, and the morrow, as family arrives or leaves or calls or writes, as children laugh or get fussy; Elders participate or rest, let us remember that each moment is an opportunity to add value, ease a burden, encourage with a word or smile, laugh out loud together. We have infinite opportunities to “Be the Love in the World” that we celebrate this day.
It is only in looking backwards that we can measure the length of a life or the impact it had on those it touched. Looking forward, we only have this moment to share the Love, Joy, Peace, Hope and humble service that this Holy Day represents. My wish for all of you, dear friends and family (and much appreciated readers), is that the Love Light that shone on our Planet that day so many centuries ago, shines on you and your family, from the youngest to the Eldest, and fills you with Peace beyond all understanding through every trial you may encounter in the next year. Peace to you, and Goodwill to all, and a very, Merry Christmas.