God told the world he was going to send it a king and the world waited. The world thought, a golden fleece will do for His bed. Silver and gold and peacock tails, a thousand suns in a peacock’s tail will do for his crib. His mother will ride on a four-horned white beast and use the sunset for a cape. She’ll trail it behind her over the ground and let the world pull it to pieces, a new one every evening.
Jesus came on cold straw, Jesus was warmed by the breath of an ox. “Who is this?” the world said. “Who is this blue-cold child and this woman, plain as the winter? Is this the Word of God, this blue-cold child? Is this His will, this plain winter-woman?” The world said, “Love cuts like the cold wind and the will of God is plain as the winter.”
The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor
“I’m going to attend a candlelight service on Christmas Eve again this year,” my friend John told me today. He’d gone last year for the first time in a long time and I was happy for him. “I figure God’s in my house every day. One night a year I can visit his.”
I remember going to Christmas Eve services when I was growing up Protestant. Since joining the Catholic Church eighteen years ago I’ve tried to always attend Midnight Mass, though with young children and/or traveling to visit family this hasn’t always been possible. A few years I’ve stepped outside at my in-laws farm in the country to observe the stars in the black sky. This year we will be home. Midnight will find me home.
John told me he likes the quiet, the solemnity, and the rare chance to sit focused quietly on giving thanks. He and I have on many occasions with humility discussed how blessed we are. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and know I will be thinking about it even more at Mass on Christmas Eve. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the Nativity itself. I think at times we tend to romanticize the realities of this event too much. Mary in a pretty blue dress, Joseph in clean robes, and a cute rosy-cheeked baby cooing in a bed of clean straw. Sure, the occasional cow or ox or donkey is present, but they appear as something illustrated in a children’s book. Cartoonish.
We do this to Jesus, sometimes. We lessen the harshness of who Jesus was and what he did. We soften Easter by glossing over the agony in the garden (sweating beads of blood!), the arrest and trial, the scourging, the crucifixion…all of this is bypassed in order to go straight to the Resurrection. Now don’t get me wrong. Outside of the Incarnation at Christmas the Resurrection at Easter is THE central event in history. We all want to get there by skipping the rest. But by omitting those details and not recognizing them, don’t we do Our Lord and even ourselves a disservice? To get to the glory of Easter morning He paid a severe price. He began paying that price by being born in a smelly, cold, dank stable amongst beasts of burden as his parents were on the road, traveling. He paid that price by being born into a world where a head of state (Herod) wanted him dead enough to order infanticide and slaughter every baby boy aged two and below in Bethlehem.
In these modern times we like to keep things clean and sterile. Spare us that icky stuff. Abortion (don’t show her that sonogram). The elderly, hidden away at a retirement community or euthanized in some countries. Down’s Syndrome children (aborted at the rate of over 90% in Great Britain alone). I’m almost twenty years removed from my days as a nominal Presbyterian but I know it wasn’t until I became a Catholic that the Lord’s passion and all the surrounding events became real to me. I’d grown up with a sterile faith of nice suits, big smiles, potluck suppers.
History is full of saints, Catholic or otherwise, holy men and women who rolled up their sleeves and went to work in helping the poor. They understood the meaning of the stable. It gave them the strength they needed to work in the streets of Calcutta or anywhere else the poor are found. And the poor are among us. Sometimes we wonder how it is that the people who lived in the time of Christ could have missed him. I mean, here was God Himself, right under their noses! Yet we today miss the poor and afflicted that surround us.
Monsignor Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington wrote On the Poverty of the First Christmas recently and it’s an article I recommend. In it he helps to put the poverty of the Holy Family and their journey. There is much I would cite from his article, but I’ll just use this passage:
So poverty is an overarching theme in the infancy narrative. But ultimately the deepest poverty is upon us who so neglect the poor. For in neglecting them, we neglect the Lord and bring judgment on ourselves (cf Matt 25:41ff). And in this moment of the nativity story, we neglect the Lord personally and historically as well well as mystically.
It is not long before we add the holy family to the list of refugees and resident aliens. For the fear of the powerful, in this case Herod, is such a powerful fear, that he fears even the poor.
The life of the Lord Jesus is despised and disrespected because his existence is inconvenient, threatening to Herod’s plans and his life as he knows it. Jesus must go. Somehow Herod is able to justify his infanticide. To him and those who support him, human life is not sacred, it is disposable, if it gets in the way of “more important goals” like power, plans, and personal advancement. Yes, Jesus must go, he is in the way.
We are still doing this today. Jesus must not get in our way or our “more important goals.” The ugly realities of his message, his mission or his life are glossed over. We want all of the reward, but abhor the thought that it might come with a price or sacrifice. I am not a morose man who knows not joy by focusing on the pain, but without it the glory is cheapened. This baby, born into poverty, who told us “blessed are the poor” and that we are to feed the hungry and proceeded to do all of that and more, is the man we are called to imitate while on earth. So I’ll ask myself on Christmas Eve: Am I? It is something worth thinking about as I consider the “cold straw” of the stable.
Whatever your faith tradition may be, I hope you take the opportunity to do the same wherever you find yourself on Christmas Eve.
“Her voice is gorgeous,” wrote a dear friend who sent me this video the other day. I agree, as are some of the images within the video itself.