Oh, how glossy marketing campaigns and commercialism have conditioned us to expect a certain perfection during the Christmas season… We anticipate perfect piety, perfect Christmas cookies, perfect parties, perfect family meals, perfect décor, perfect gifts, perfect smiles of surprise, and perfect family pictures… Anything else? Whatever it is, it better be perfect…
We are so immersed in this culture of marketing that in glancing at the Gospel telling of the first Christmas, it can seem like a completely different event. It’s worth taking more than just a glance.
In the first Christmas, we see joy and perfection in the midst of a mess.
We see Mary’s transition from being “greatly troubled” to giving her perfect yes. Her exclamation of “How can this be?” followed by her complete “fiat!” is the model for all of us at every age. No one ever feels ready to be a parent. No one is ever wholly sure that things are going to go ok in any major life change, or even in day-to-day events. But Mary said yes to the plan of God that she could neither see nor control, and we can too.
We also see Joseph’s pain and the decision to divorce Mary quietly until God intervened in a dream. Imagine Mary seeing Joseph’s broken heart and hoping against hope that he would believe and understand the truth. Imagine Joseph’s inability to reconcile Mary’s gentle perfection and the situation he was confronted with. Only God could make sense of it, but he let them experience the mess before showing them the truth. How often in our relationships we don’t understand each other and are wounded by stressful situations. Only God can heal and give clarity and meaning to them.
We see joy shared between Mary and Elizabeth and their children, and we see long and arduous journeys. We see Mary and Joseph with nowhere to stay as Christ is born, and yet in their poverty they offer a warm welcome to the shepherds and kings. We see the perfect family relegated to staying in a cold, dirty stable. Jesus entered the world — the beautiful world He created — in a dark and dirty environment. Stables at this time were often caves with feeding troughs, or mangers, carved into the rock walls. This was not the clean and ornate royal birthplace people would have expected for the Messiah. Jesus’ birth reminds us that God is not limited by our expectations, but our expectations can limit our understanding of his plan.
We see the joy of the Christ Child’s birth followed immediately by the need to escape Herod and flee to Egypt during the night. Imagine Joseph’s frustration at being unable to provide Mary with a clean, warm place to give birth, or a safe place for Jesus to rest, and see the difficulty of families living in poverty, unable to provide for the basic needs of their children.
No human being would have planned God’s birth this way. In the first Christmas we can find no superficial perfection, but so much messy, profound and unexpected beauty. The Gospel was apparently not written byHollywood or by commercial marketers. What we’re inundated with on TV, in the flyers that flood our inboxes and mailboxes and on the internet is fake news.
Real life, even the life of the Holy Family, is messy. If you’re a parent, there’s a good chance that right now some area of your house is strewn with toys, books, cheerios and the odd sock. Even more than that, in our relationships and circumstances, sometimes life just feels like one big mess. In those times, Christmas reminds us that God isn’t afraid of a mess — that’s where he creates unexpected beauty and joy. That’s where he comes to be born in us. He chose to show us through his own birth that there is joy in the mess, peace in the simplicity, and love in the confusion and pain of life. Hallmark can’t market those gifts.
So pray well, throw (and attend) great parties, make delicious cookies and meals, and celebrate with thoughtful gifts and lovely decorations, but don’t worry about perfection. Find and give the perfect joy, peace, and love that Christ makes present in the midst of us, whether life is messy or beautiful. At Christmas, it can be both, because God chooses to be present in that imperfect mix.