But have we lost some of our understanding of Christmas? Have we wrapped it in too much tinsel, sanitised it too much? Made it too respectable? Where is the Holy Child amidst the tree, the gifts, the music, the shopping and the excess food?
It is arguable that there was nothing respectable about the Holy Dysfunctional Family of Nazareth. Again and again the Church holds up as a model the family of Nazareth and they are right to do so but maybe the interpretation has become too familiar?
“In human terms, in paschal terms – [from the Greek verb pascho with its root word in strickeness and suffering] – the story of Jesus begins with a terrified teenager birthing onto a futon of straw in a rock cavity amid the incense of the breath of livestock. It begins in a Taliban territory, a sectarian state that murders single mothers by stoning them. It begins badly and ends worse – in the public execution of her child as a condemned criminal in a rubbish dump outside the city walls.”
In very human terms, still very much happening today, frightened young girls and women are giving birth in conditions not much better and often worse, relying on the divine grace of their human female nature – often so defiled and abused by the societies that they are in - to bring to climax the process of creation which they have participated in either willingly or unwillingly. Like that young Jewish girl giving birth without the benefit of midwives they too often “experience an unescorted birth; labour without amenity…there are no women present” . It was ironic that it was “the despised shepherds of inter-testamental Palestine [who visit the birth of] the puking mite who has been born at the wrong time and in the wrong environment” . But that irony is further compounded when it is men, the stalwarts in a theatre of atrocity who will be absent from the vigil at the Cross . The roles are reversed, men welcome him into the world and women assist him out of this vale of tears.
But even before the messiness, the pain and suffering of birth in a dark cave where a mother, in her ultimate gift to the world, in bringing new life into that ungrateful world, prefigures the blood and pain of Calvary, she had suffered for her willingness to be open to the message of God.
She suffered from staring eyes and whispers behind her back which forced her to the shelter of her cousin Elizabeth to the consolation of another woman in the same predicament as she. Small consolation to her, but surely it offers hope to any woman in the situation of an unexpected pregnancy and worried about “what the neighbours may say”.
She suffered in the uncertainty as to whether her fiancée would stand by her in what in human terms he could have seen as being an ultimate betrayal. We can say that “Joseph was a very decent man. He didn’t want to give his girlfriend a bad reputation and after a reassuring dream he married her. But was it a happy life?”
She suffered “when Jesus was twelve they lost him in the crowd and when they found him, after three days of anxiously looking, their question: “Why did you do this to us?” was answered with something close to a reproach: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house”(Luke 2:49)? This response, “But didn’t you know I have more important things to do than pay attention to you,” is hardly consoling” to Mary and Joseph but must give hope to any parents of angst-ridden teenagers.
Take and eat…take and drink….we eat of his body, broken on the Cross, birthed in pain and suffering in a dark cave. We drink of his blood poured out for us, but as blood and water flowed from his side, so too it poured forth at this birth, prefiguring the sacrifice to be made on Calvary. Simeon’s prophecy to Mary was that she would experience suffering too for having brought this child into the world, but what mother does not experience suffering from the moment of birth as her child grows further and further away from her into their own person and ultimately journeys back to the God that made them?
“When Jesus hands over his body to the disciples he is vulnerable. He is in their hands for them to do as they wish...It embodies a tenderness that means that one may well get hurt. It is a self gift that may be met with rebuff and mockery and in which one may feel oneself to be used. The Last Supper shows us with extreme realism the perils of giving ourselves to anyone…The Last Supper is the story of the risk of giving yourself to others. That is why Jesus died, because he loved. But not to take the risk is even more dangerous. It is deadly…Love is the only impetus that is sufficiently overwhelming to force us to leave the comfortable shelter of our well-armed individuality, shed the impregnable shell of self-sufficiency, and crawl nakedly into the danger zone beyond, the melting pot where individuality is purified into personhood.” Mary too, as a mother, handed over her body to the world so that the world could receive the Divine Love into its midst and then suffered again as the world rejected that Divine Love by impaling it on a cross.
At Christmas we remember that “‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ God became bodily like us. One might say that Jesus became even more bodily than us, at home in his skin, at ease in himself, body and soul, a face without masks. Jesus could only give himself to us. ‘This is my body, given for you’, because he accepted himself as a gift from the Father in the first place.” We celebrate the humanity of Christ, like us in all things except sin and celebrate our humanity – our physicality. “Most of the doctrines of Christianity make no sense unless we have a clear understanding of the goodness of our corporeal existence: Creation, Incarnation, the sacraments, the resurrection of the dead, all rooted in our flesh and blood”.
It is difficult to anticipate the meaning of the suffering of Easter in the light of the joy of Christmas but the shadow of the Cross overshadows the Nativity scene. However, that shadow of a cruel instrument of torture is cast by the light streaming through the open door of an empty Tomb on Easter morn. It is the lens of the Resurrection through which we understand and from that understanding, can dare to celebrate Christmas.The fact that God-made-Man, entered into our existence, entered into our human history, experienced our pains, our joys, our needs, “like us in all things except sin,” is the ultimate hope given to us. The in-breaking of God into human history enables us to share in the ultimate love between the persons of the Godhead expressed as the Holy Spirit. Because Christ has taken on our frail human nature, we are able to participate in, no rather are part of, the Divine Eros, the Divine Love epitomised by the sending of that Spirit of Love on the first Pentecost, the manifestation of love on the world. No longer are we just made in the image and likeness of God, through His sharing in our humanity we share ultimately in his divinity.
At Christmas we should pause and reflect, rediscover the humanity of the season, the celebration of that humanity and ultimately recall that:
Quotes and references acknowledgements:
A. Matthews, In the Poorer Quarters (2007, Veritas, Dublin); H. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, (1998, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York); T. Radcliffe, What is the point of being a Christian?, (2005, Burns & Oates, Continuum,