Posted by: Michelle Anne Schingler
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
By the third ostentatious sign of evangelism, I realized two things: the first, I’d been driving too long, and I was weary; the second, that I was unquestionably back in the South.
Southerners love their roadside reminders of God’s great sacrifice. My eye was first drawn to an enormous statue which appeared to be made of broad PVC pipes, of the cross; it was lit in fluorescent purple from a spotlight aimed upward. The second rivaled the first in size: three crosses stories high, evoking Calvary. Finally, an enormous, Valentine’s-card-reminiscent billboard proclaimed “I really do love you! –Jesus.” The message was surrounded by hearts and an unusually cheerful outline of a fish.
The nation rejoices before a child, Isaiah announces. It makes feasts before him, for he has increased their joy. He is to become the Prince of Peace, a mighty comfort to his people. It’s no wonder we read Isaiah at Christmas time; the prophet’s verses encapsulate all of the hopes which found a home in Jesus. Prince of Peace, born to a nation in need: he gave the people reason to rejoice, if he could not bring everlasting calm to Earth in that lifetime.
I contradict myself, though, and contradict the gospel: we know that, despite the continuation of earthly turmoil in Jesus’s wake, he did bring peace to Earth: he taught us the means by which we can attain it temporally, he promised it eternally to those who took up his cross.
Nothing is more worthy of our celebration.
Or maybe four signs. Earlier, I’d passed a town called Bethlehem, which naturally, as I myself was travelling home for Christmas, prompted gospel recollections. I remembered hearing that small towns like these were frequently abuzz in the weeks before Christmas, with travelers eager to mark their Christmas cards with a genuinely Christ-evoking postal code. I smiled, still finding that juxtaposition somewhat odd: the first Bethlehem was a place the holy family found themselves in quite reluctantly, and yet its namesakes are frequented by those who eagerly memorialize the holy family’s stay by making needless “pilgrimages” to the towns.
They just wanted to get home, I found myself meditating, quite sympathizing with the holy family at that moment. I was not in exile, or on the run from auditors—but I was finding my journey long, and knew that if my needs had been more pressing than the mild discomfort of twelve hours on the road, I’d have wanted to pull into Bethlehem myself this night, and seek asylum in a hotel.
I’d soon, myself, be asking “do you have any rooms?”, if the respite I found would hardly be of the sort that would bring hope to all of the world.
“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:4-7).
The two gospels which mention Christ’s birth tell slightly disparate stories: in one, Joseph and Mary travelled to participate in an obligatory census; in another, they were fleeing from the wrathful gaze of Herod, who wanted to dispatch of the incarnate God before he had the chance to heal humanity. In either case, Mary finds herself in a difficult spot: quite pregnant and far from home, she feels the first pangs of birth, and she and Joseph have to interrupt their plans to find a place for her to bring Jesus into the world.
Many of us will view, or participate in, nativity plays, or at least see nativity scenes, this Christmas; we’re endlessly fascinated with the symbols surrounding the virgin birth. Such a humble way for God to come to earth, in a manger, finding himself denied a place in any inn; but we love that this is how our salvation begin, and like to render the quiet scene in awesome ways.
Three kings crowd around the babe. Livestock gaze on, their eyes wide: even they are amazed. A shepherd comes to look upon he who will become the shepherd of all.
A star guided them there. Each Christmas we too find ourselves looking for its light.
I felt awful, by and bye, for daring to draw parallels between my journey and theirs. Some details, certainly, had surface familiarity: I was going to my family home, if not to register; the journey was long; and I’d have to interrupt it by begging for a place to lay my head.
But my Christmas story is not THE Christmas story. I’d found myself growing whiny after twelve hours alone in the car; but, comparatively, how lucky my situation was! I was controlling my own climate; I was covering ground which would take eons to cover on donkey back; I was not with child, and my timing was hardly compulsory; I could stop when and where I wished for readily available respite.
And, in contrast: I thought about Mary, very pregnant, still a teenager, her back no doubt aching after hours, even days, riding atop a donkey. She could not have wanted to go, and likely enjoyed no creature comforts. Her route was determined by destiny, and the stable in which she ended up became a site destined for memorialization…if, to her, it could hardly have been ideal.
She found herself in Bethlehem out of need; I was going out of want.
Though, what I wanted was to celebrate the relief she brought to our need, all those Christmases ago.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (Titus 2:11-12).
We make Christmas so much more complicated than the hour or two we spend of it in church, concentratedly actually celebrating the birth of Christ. We confuse our religious feelings with the stress of buying and receiving gifts, meditate upon the nativity scene interspersed with meditations on decorations and family feasts, think about the holy family, but concern ourselves with the bringing together of our own families, too.
There’s a risk for worldly passions in our Christmas celebrations: in the way we arrive there; in the things we carry with us.
But those hours in church, or in prayer with family, become the real beacons in our celebrations, the “stars” above the manger: when we quiet down in humble settings to gather our hearts around a child born in a manger, come to lead the world.
I’ll just press on, I thought. Just a few more hours until I’m home. A short stretch of road, and then Christmas begins.
Images borrowed from: