For Christmas, we should strive to create magical moments by arraying our homes in magnificent splendor, giving our loved ones perfect presents and baking up the best batch of cookies ever.
Well, that's what TV commercials tell us, anyway.
Our faith tells us we should commemorate the greatest event in human history: the birth of the Christ. I recognize the superiority of the spiritual message, so I'd like to say that I shun all materialism and celebrate a purely spiritual Christmas. But the truth is that, for this earthly mother, Christmas reality falls somewhere in between.
Motherhood keeps me grounded. The details of my days are made up of diapers to change, greasy dishes piled in the kitchen sink and pork chops I forgot to thaw for dinner. There is no sense in longing for it to be otherwise: God has called me to a physically focused, far-from-contemplative vocation — and the practical focus of my duties is not going to become a meditative one simply because it happens to be Christmastime.
The good news for us simple souls is that the Christmas story doesn't exclude those of us with a more practical focus. In fact, many of the details surrounding our Lord's arrival on earth embrace and ennoble the physical reality of the human condition.
Consider Mary's pregnancy and the intimate, cherished connection between a mother and her unborn child — a very physical experience indeed. I like to think that Jesus and Mary enjoyed their own private heaven through their physical proximity during the nine months she nourished him within her body. She must have felt her baby's kicks and squirms as he gained strength and readied himself for birth. Like any mother, she must have wondered when her baby would be born, what he might look like and what it would feel like to hold him in her arms.
Likewise, the Holy Family's pre-birth voyage to Bethlehem was not a spiritual journey, but a very real and physical one. I know more than a little bit about the blessed burden of late-term pregnancy, and I can imagine Mary's rough ride on the back of a donkey. I can feel the cold night air that settled in with the darkness and understand Joseph's realistic concern for finding safe shelter for his pregnant wife as they arrived in a strange town with little money.
I can imagine the earthen floor of a humble stable and a young couple's uncertainty about its suitability for sleeping. I can smell the musky scent of animals, feel the moist warmth of their breath and hear their heavy movements in the darkness. I can feel the rough wood of a tiny manger and the scratchy stiffness of the straw.
Here would be born a baby boy — a real baby with tiny lungs to breathe in the night air and let out a gentle cry. He would have sweet, smooth skin, a tuft of hair, miniature fingers and tiny legs to kick against the swaddling. At Christmas, Jesus becomes physical reality — really human and really God in one warm and wiggly infant body.
This Christmas Day, I know I will have my share of bellies to fill, pine needles to sweep and wrappings to dispose of. But I plan to do it all with heightened alertness to Jesus' quiet presence amid the hullabaloo.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace …
Danielle Bean writes from Belknap, New Hampshire.
- Dec. 19, 2004-Jan. 1, 2005