Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The humanity of Christmas

There is a moment in Arianna Franklin's tense historical thriller The Serpent's Tale when the story pauses, the tension of murder and intrigue halted for, of all things, Christmas.  As usual, Franklin has done her research, and her depiction of the Angel Mass is rooted in the Twelfth Century.  In her prose, Franklin captures the immediacy of the memory of Christ's birth to the medieval world. She writes:

"There was a common and growing breathlessness as Mary labored in her stable a few yards away...
"...When the abbot, raising his arms. announced a deep throated 'The Child is born,' his exhortation to go in peace was lost in a great shout of congratulation, several of the women yelling advice on breast-feeding to the invisible but present Mary and prompting her to 'make sure and wrap that baby up warm now.'

"Bethlehem was here. It was now."

That image of a medieval mass, filled with what we, in our age of media and information, would consider "simple folk" might seem charmingly parochial and ignorant.  Yet hidden within it is a lesson worth learning, a truth that our compartmentalized and sterilized world has taken away from us as we celebrate the holiday season - the unflinching humanity of the Christmas story.

In our world of elegant nativities and Christmas cards, it is easy to relegate the event of Jesus' birth - the event that those who claim Christianity seek to honor - to a beautiful, clean story.  Certainly, some tellings emphasize the poverty and humility of the stable or the difficulty of the situation.  But rare indeed is the acknowledgement that Jesus was born in blood and pain, covered in the same bodily fluids as every other baby in history. He did not appear sweet and swaddled as he appears in the crèche on the table; the story of Christmas is the story of a birth with all its accompanying humanity.

Birth, in our age, is relegated to the cool, professional sterility of the hospital. Most  have never seen a baby born; birth, we are told, is a miracle, and its depictions in the media present us with clean, charming infants far beyond their own nativity.  Like so many other things in our world, "birth" is an idea, not a physical reality, so when we hear that Jesus was "born in a manger," our mental picture is of a serenely swaddled, immaculate infant on the front of a Hallmark card.

By accepting that image, those who believe in the Christmas story and the faith of which it is a part shortchange themselves and their beliefs.  Part of the great wonder of Christ's birth is that it represents God with us, an act of relationship building unrivaled in history.  Christianity is not merely a religious structure or a spiritual way of thinking; it is an active process of establishing and nurturing a relationship, the miracle of man seeking a rapport with God and discovering God is willing to engage in that connection. 

Looking at the birth of Christ in the way the "primitives" of Franklin's medieval Angel Mass do changes the pure ideological story of God sending Jesus to give a message into a messy, harsh, and unspeakably beautiful narrative of God's willingness to take an abstract and put it into harsh physical terms...all for the sake of forging a relationship in our unspeakably human terms.  That story of blood and pain, of breast feeding and diapers may not be pure and philosophically comfortable, but it is immediate and powerful in a way that we often forget.

The people of the Twelfth Century were indeed ignorant; they were superstitious and more often than not had neither access to nor interest in Christian doctrine and ideology.  We are indeed more sophisticated and erudite than those folk encouraging an imaginary Mary in a  stall, yet our sophistication may deny us the connection to the physical reality of Jesus' coming, and by extension the potential of the relationship that coming offers Christians - a God who chose to be incarnated in blood and pain, to live and laugh and sweat and rage, and to die in agony, all without regret or resentment for the sake of a relationship with us, His creation. 

To me, as a Christian, that is the greatest miracle of Christmas.  I love my crèche, and I cherish the greeting card images of the Little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.  But in my heart this Christmas Eve, I'll be calling encouragement to a Mary in a stable long, long ago and picturing a baby born in blood and amniotic fluid, not because it's comforting or attractive, but because it reminds me of the true wonder of Christmas for me...the wonder of a relationship between the glory of heaven and the grit of humanity.  That's something I need to remember, to pursue, and to cherish.

Merry Christmas.