Have you ever thought about what the events we celebrate at Christmas must have been like for Mary, the mother of Jesus? Initially, of course, it must have been exciting for her. The angel Gabriel appears to her and announces that she is to have a son who will be the long awaited Messiah. Wow! What a privilege, what an honor, what a promise! One can only imagine what kinds of expectations that promise must have raised in Mary’s thoughts about her future. With the special Son of God as her offspring, surely her life would be a success; it would be joyous, peaceful, secure; it would be altogether glorious.
But perhaps one of the most instructive things about the Christmas story is how–against all expectations (both ours and undoubtedly Mary’s as well)–it all went down so wrong: it was chaotic, messy, sad, awkward, and inappropriate.
The biblical text does not tell us much about the dynamics of Mary and Joseph coming to terms with Mary’s pregnancy when both she and Joseph knew that Joseph was not the father. But can we not guess how difficult it must have been? What a way to start a marriage? By forcing them to work through temptations to doubt and mistrust one another, God could have destroyed that marriage. And how socially awkward that whole situation was. Why couldn’t God have announced his purposes and plans to the whole community, not just to Mary alone and later to Joseph? Why could He not have sent a prophet to explain the events? For who would believe from Mary’s own lips that she was pregnant as a virgin?
Then there was that incredibly uncomfortable and inconvenient journey to Bethlehem. Was she not the mother of the Son of God appointed by God Himself? Why so abused then? Why inflicted with such an unnecessary ordeal?
Then the circumstances of the birth itself. In a manger, with the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast. And indeed, that’s what they were: a humble family of humble means. If they were to raise up a man who was to be the eternal king of the entire world, why under such humiliating and deprived circumstances?
And then there was the inevitable disappointment, the letdown, the self-doubt. What must it have been like, after angels have sung and wise men have traveled from the far reaches of the earth to pay homage to this newborn king, to then live through the utter dailiness of life with an infant. Outside, in the busy world of human existence, evil, injustice, oppression, grief, sorrow, agony, and death are ripping the lives of people apart, and the king of righteousness is looking up from Mary’s breast and cooing. Years later, the kings of the earth are spitting in the face of the living God in their arrogance and conceit, and the conquering king of the universe is chasing toads in the wadi over the hill. Twenty-something years later, the world has not changed a bit; there has been no light to penetrate the darkness, and Jesus is in his shop, sharpening his tools. How hard it must have been to believe that the angels so long ago were singing the truth; how hard to believe that the wise men had not made a mistake. Mary was so very much like every one of us; she had been called upon to believe a promise that delayed and then delayed some more–for years at a time, decades– without even a hint that it was ever going to come true.
And we must not forget the fear, the anxiety, the stress, and the trauma as Mary and Joseph had to flee Bethlehem to Egypt to protect the life of the toddling Jesus. Was this what Mary had expected? I wonder. Perhaps those angels who had sung in the heavenly choir to the shepherds would have been better deployed as bodyguards to protect the young Jesus from harm. The soldiers of Herod surely would have been no match for them. But alas, they had to flee secretly, in fear, lest they be found and the young Jesus get thrust through with a sword.
And then there was the messiest situation of all: all the murdered toddlers in Bethlehem. If you were going to throw a Christmas, if you were going to bring light into the world to dispel the darkness, if you were going to bring hope into the hopelessness of this world, if you were going to manifest your mercy and goodness in order to overcome evil and death, would you have allowed murder to play such a dramatic role? Would you have allowed Herod’s murderous rage to rip the hearts out of so many parents in Bethlehem? Would you have allowed the darkness to appear to have the upper hand? Would you have allowed so many to experience hopelessness on such an occasion of hope? Would you have allowed evil to triumph in the midst of the conquering hero being born? Probably not. But then, that, I think, is part of the message of Christmas.
Our lives of hope as believers will proceed along the same lines as this whole story began. It’s going to be messy. The story of the birth of our Messiah is messy, shooting all our expectations to pieces. Similarly, we can expect the rebirth of our spirits to be messy, smashing to pieces all our worldly hopes and expectations. All of our lives will inevitably be a little reenactment of Mary’s first Christmas: a growing awareness that the path to hope and victory will be painful, disappointing, chaotic, and marred by evil. God does not call forth the light instead of the darkness; God calls forth the light out of the darkness. Is that not what we have found in our own lives and experience?
In our naivete‚ and undying worldliness, we have very different expectations as to how our lives will go if we follow Jesus and obey Him. If we only trust Him and obey His commandments, life will go so well. Our lives will be orderly, safe, secure, and something we can be proud of. Isn’t that what Gabriel told us: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason you will have the power to find success in all that you endeavor”? Won’t the Spirit of God come into my life and sweep away painful and negative emotions? Won’t He give me a marriage where my wife and I love each other, communicate with each other, satisfy each other, and remain utterly loyal and faithful to each other? Won’t He give me children who respond respectfully and openly to the truth about God and naturally and spontaneously learn to love and obey Him? Won’t my friends so respect me and trust me that they will be always and unfailingly loyal? Won’t my parents be for me everything a parent ought to be?
But then along comes Christmas. Perhaps my life is in turmoil as my child evidences nothing but rebellion and foolishness. Perhaps for one more year I live with the deep pain in my heart of having a parent who barely acknowledges that I exist. Perhaps my life has been shattered by the marital infidelity of my spouse; or by my own marital infidelity. Perhaps my friend has inexplicably turned on me, betrayed me, slandered me, or otherwise stabbed me in the back. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t what the angel said. Like Mary, we have to come to terms with our expectations; we have to learn the ways of God. We have to get to know the God with whom we have to do. God is not a neat God; and the path to wisdom He is leading us down is not a well-manicured, closely- mown path. It is messy and yucky and altogether noisome at times. God has never promised me that I will arrive at wisdom with my dignity, my self-confidence, my success, and my record intact.
Mary must have learned on that first Christmas long ago that God is not interested in our path being unmarked by evil and unblemished; He is only interested in it being a path that leads to true wisdom and salvation. He is not intent on our arriving at salvation untattered and unbruised; that is our agenda, not His. He is intent on our arriving at salvation period. And indeed, in the mystery and irony of God’s ways, it is because of and through the bruises that we arrive at salvation. The bruises do not detain our progress toward salvation; they hasten it along. The wise saint is not the unblemished saint; the unblemished saint is the phony one. No, the wise saint is the one whose life has been attacked and ravaged on every side by the ferocious attacks of sin, and he has come out truly the wiser for it.
Our Book says that after hearing the report of the angels’ message to the shepherds, Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The remarkable virtue of Mary is that, no matter how much her worldly expectations failed, no matter how hard it got to be to believe that the message of the angels was true and relevant, she kept right on believing. Her own soul was sifted like wheat, and she was found to be a true child of God who hoped in the victory that her own son would one day bring.
My hope today is that all of us will have a Christmas like Mary’s; that we, too, will treasure the promise of the angels in our hearts and will bury those promises there so deeply and securely that no amount of messiness and compromise with evil that God allows into (and indeed brings into) our lives will quench our belief in the angels’ proclamation, nor extinguish our hope that the king born on Christmas day is a king who will one day come in power and vanquish every last vestige of darkness within our own souls and throughout the whole world order. That is the promise of Christmas; that is the promise we must believe. To believe that Christmas means we can and will live a postcard-perfect life is a damnable delusion, straight from the pits of hell. Christmas is the conquering hero escaping helplessly to Egypt, biding his time, while the soldiers of Herod murder innocent babies. Christmas is hope coming into the world right in the midst of treachery, perversion, cruelty, and evil and existing right alongside it for years at a time. We would write a different story; but, in the end, ours would not be nearly so profound.
May we all have ourselves a Mary little Christmas.