Of Christmas and Humble Beginnings
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” - John 1
Christmas is really something. The Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth has persisted for 2000 years, and it overlaid pagan stories and festivals that stretched back thousands of years before that. In modern times we’ve morphed a collection of folk images into the Santa Claus myth and our celebrations have become a commercial juggernaught. Many of us love the holiday, and many of us find ourselves overly stressed by it. Christmas represents all that is good about human life and spirit, and it’s dark side is craving, acquisitiveness, gluttony and disappointment.
It is easy to get distracted by the lights and colors and food and music and shopping and gifts. It is good to come back to the original story of Jesus and his family. It is a simple story, but there is a lot going on there. If as an adult you read the gospel stories of Jesus’ nativity, you may find meaning that you’d never noticed before. Reading Matthew, we find St. Joseph acting on information he got in dreams. Astrologers, the wise men from the East, had information nobody else knew. And believe it or not the head of government was not trustworthy. In Luke too, we find the government being a problem. Caesar called a census and everybody had to go to their family homes to register. Poor Joseph had to schlep his pregnant wife (or perhaps fiancé) to Bethlehem, and there was no way to get a reservation, so they wound up sleeping with the domestic animals. Do you think this endeared strong central government to Joseph and Mary?
Jesus is born and laid in a manger, which is a trough used to feed livestock. In terms of beginnings, it doesn’t get more humble than that. So we have the beginning of a legacy that has spanned thousands of years, that transformed the great Roman civilization, tremendously influenced the course of Western Civilization, pushed aside paganism around the world, and inspired great minds and great souls to great works and great aspirations. If Joseph had not listened to his dream that said essentially, “Yes your betrothed is pregnant and not by you. Marry her anyway” It would have all worked out differently.
An important theme of the nativity story is that out of the most humble beginnings can arise a force that transforms the world. What a hopeful thought. Even one who starts at the bottom can do great things and produce great results. An idea who’s time has come can sweep the world. With love, great things are possible. If one lives and speaks in harmony with the will of God, miracles happen. (Substitute the words Tao or Dharma for the word God if it suits you better).
In the nativity story, Jesus’ birth is the central event, but Jesus doesn’t actually do anything himself. He is carried by his mother, escorted by his mortal father, recognized by the wise men and the shepherds, feared by the King. The action is in the everyday people. Some of them we’ve called saints in retrospect, but they were people with fears and confusion, just like us. People brought the Christ among us—inspired people perhaps in some cases, but mortals who had choices to make, who could have been distracted by their fears or personal desires, and if they had been, things would have been much different.
Let us not forget that we mortals, we the fallible, the confused and fearful make up this world of ours. It is up to us to be prepared, to be watchful, to be open to the new and the revolutionary and to be ready to act when the inspiration comes over us. The world is not as we would like it to be. We can do better. Let us remember at this season of the nativity and at this new year that we, as humble as we may be, are the creators of the future and that our choices give birth to the conditions out of which the new world arises.