There’s a great podcast by America Media called Imagine that offers a series of guided reflections in a Jesuit prayer tradition in which you put yourself in the scene of a Biblical story. The first season walked with Jesus from his Baptism through his Resurrection. This season focuses on the Christmas story, and it has allowed me to see in a new way stories that are so frequently told that they become like wallpaper, mostly unnoticeable backdrop. It’s been quite a gift.
Two episodes resonate anew this year for me. In one, we are walking with Joseph and Mary as they leave their home, with Mary nine-months pregnant, to walk 70 miles or so to Bethlehem to report in for a government census. In the next, they arrive in Bethlehem, find no place to stay, Mary goes into labor, and they settle for a stable.
I know you know those stories, probably so well that you can’t sink your teeth into anything new in them. At least, that was my reaction. But imagining walking along and talking with them, as Joseph packs up to leave, as they trudge along the long road, as a first-time mother manages a labor in filthy, stinky, foreign conditions, knowing the complicated backstory of this unwed couple, one thing was so powerfully clear:
This. Is. So. Messed. Up.
Traveling at 9 months pregnant. For a census. Giving birth in a stable without any help. With a fiancé who is not the child’s father. Cleaning out a feeding trough for a bed. So messed up.
(* Perhaps it’s a window into my prayer life you didn’t want to see through, but the phrase that recurred was not “messed up;” that’s the sanitized version.)
I’m not a Biblical literalist. Neither the infancy story Matthew tells nor this one that Luke tells needs to be factually accurate in order to speak truths, in my book. The census Quirinius actually called didn’t happen when Jesus was in the womb, scholarship says; Luke might have had the facts wrong, or maybe it is just a device to get the Holy Family to Bethlehem, to align with the early tradition about Jesus and with Old Testament prophecies about where the Messiah was born. I am very comfortable with Gospel writers reverse-engineering a story that helps them tell the story of the inexplicable experience of a Resurrected Jesus and what that means for us today.
But the magic of the Lukan version of Jesus’ story is how the ineffable is so closely interwoven with the irretrievably messed up. The Holy Family is an unwed pair of homeless laborers in a foreign town, and the first people who recognize them are from society’s lowest rung, in a setting barely fit for animals (which, pre-21st Century urban America, is pretty awful).
Walking with them through the messed-up-ness – the hopelessness of packing for a really stupid trip, the desolation of being in a foreign place without a home or a place to turn, the birthing of a child into this train wreck of a scenario – this was a beautiful and hopeful experience in 2020, when so much of our lives seems so irrevocably effed up.
God is not only in that mess; God chooses that mess to say “Yes, even here. Especially here.”
It is upending in a way that is hard to reconcile with the idea that the Gospel birth narratives are meant to be hagiographies.
And it made me chuckle, at the absurdity, as well as at the recognition that God is saying that yes, even here in 2020, especially here in 2020, the thrill of hope appears.
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