Last year on December 24th, I walked into our humble church in east Spokane along with some wise men, children bearing straw, and a few angels. I was holding onto my 1-year-old Olivia who had been baptized in the church 4 months prior. The church has high ceilings made of wood, everything is wood. It's the kind of place that reminds you just how many people you really can fit onto a small square piece of land. It looks small and grandiose at the same time. A humble place. If you cannot donate to St. Anne's during the passing of the hat, don't despair; you can just as easily donate your adorable child to stand in as a camel or shepherd during the midnight* mass. (*Midnight has been moved to 4:30 sharp.) Baby Jesus will not judge you or begrudge you this offering. He loves kids.
The mass began and soon we were taken back to that story about Bethlehem, the star, the young Mary and Joseph, and the heavenly hosts.
As a Catholic-raised child, I learned a lot about the birth of Christ and the cast of characters that went with it. But as they got to the part about Mary talking with the angel Gabriel, I started to feel some doubtful feelings. It happens this way sometimes to Catholics like me. The rest of you may find it obvious that things like a "virgin birth" are not exactly...well, possible. Scientifically. Ok, fine. But I didn't know that for like 20+ years of my life.
I understood the story that had always been told to me:
An angel is sent to Mary. Mary, he says, you are the handmaiden of the Lord, you will have a baby and call his name Jesus. She is impregnated without ruining her virginity. Basically a win-win on all accounts.
Mary tells Joseph, her betrothed. He's not cool initially, later he has a dream and all is forgiven.
Let's go back a step, how is Mary able to bear the Child of God, the King of Kings? Her mother (Saint Anne) gave birth to Mary free from sin. This is the Immaculate Conception. (Yes, the term is often confused, but it refers to Mary's birth. And it is one of the dogmas of Catholicism.) Since Mary was born without original sin, she is clear to carry the Savior. Confused yet? Good.
Caesar Augustus decides to tax everyone, or take a census, or both, I'm not sure. Add this to the list of irrational burdens that the Jews must endure under foreign rule. So every man must return to his city of birth to pay this tax. Why their city of birth? I'm not sure, it's just easier that way, okay?
So, off they go to Bethlehem, the City of David. (I assume it is significant that Joseph is tied to the line of David. But if Mary was impregnated miraculously, then Jesus would not carry that bloodline. Am I the only one to think of this?! But as He grows up, everyone just assumes that He is Joseph's son, and I mean, He IS (except for the whole Son of God thing). But whatever, moving on.)
And once they arrive, they realize, crap! Everyone else already got there and snagged all 13 hotels rooms (it was a small town). Then a kindly innkeeper offers up the barn in back, and they're back in luck!
And the time came that Mary should be delivered. And she did, presumably with a midwife who would have been called. Don't even begin to tell me that Joseph wouldn't have called for a midwife, he would.
And Mary brought forth her first born son and lay him in a manger. No crying He made.
In the fields there were shepherds keeping watch of their sheep. But the angel came to them to deliver the amazing news, and when that didn't work, a sky full of heavenly hosts convinced them. And off they ran to see the child who would become the King of the Jews.
Elsewhere, three wise men (who we now believe may have been early astronomers?) followed a star. And they followed it straight to Baby Jesus, a few weeks after His birth. But you know, better late than never, right? Nothing that a little gold and myrrh can't cure.
* * *
That is the story, more or less. I don't know if any of it is true, and my hunch (now) is that very little of it really is, but I'm not so sure that matters. History is just as much about what we make it. History can have little to do with facts, and more to do with meaning. Particularly in matters like this.
The story is really quite beautiful and meaningful when you strip away all the dogmatic nonsense. Start with the virgin story. Mary does not need to be a virgin for this story to work. The virgin birth story is a thread that weaves through several cultures' origin stories or stories of God. It may have several meanings, but one of the less savory ones is this: it explains the birth of a God without all the messy sex stuff that has always made women so unholy. Women can be evil (impure, sinful, sexual) or pure (untouched, unsexual, the eternal mother). Our cultures have typically not left room for much else.
But think about it this way: Mary and Joseph marry young, and miraculously become pregnant with a quickness they can't understand. They wouldn't understand. Being young and somewhat uneducated in these matters, pregnancy would be a bit scary and a bit inexplicable. Isn't it still?
But they pray and they ask their God for guidance, and God sends messengers to tell them it will all be ok. Did it happen in a dream? Certainly possible. Were they angels? Most definitely.
Then they must make a trip. Joseph must care for Mary. (He buys a reliable donkey. Good gas milage, able to haul big loads. Good thinking.) They run into unexpected trouble. They make the best of it. (Find shelter. Use the pregnancy card on the innkeeper. Oh you have a stable? Great, send blankets. And a midwife.)
Then they have this moment, in the stable, alone. I imagine them holding on with fear in their eyes but with a strength that comes from love and faith. They believe that their purpose is bigger than themselves. They believe that this child has come to the world to do something wonderful. And their job, right now, is to get him here.
As I was sitting in our church on Christmas, I was reminded of this moment in my own life. I remember that feeling... oh dear... I am truly alone, aren't I? Who trusted me to do this job?! But right now I can panic or I can push this baby out with all that I have. There is no time to question whether you have that strength. Then I remember, Jake grabbed my leg, my mom grabbed my arm. I was not really alone. I remember hearing them cheer. There were others in the room. And I think Someone else was there too.
And suddenly there she was. There He was. The King of Kings. Prince of Peace.
And his name shall be called Wonderful...
Perhaps the most beautiful thing is how simple this story is, and yet how miraculous. A baby is born every day. This one was born to poor, young parents in a stable surrounded by animals and other earthly things. And yet he gets the royal treatment. Nothing like the modern Prince George, mind you. But this little king is greeted by an entourage too: shepherds, and later "wise" men. He receives gifts that his family desperately needs as they are fleeing back to home (we skipped that part earlier, it's quite sad). They travel far to see Him, a baby!
...Babies, if you're not already aware, make for rather lousy entertainment. They coo a little, they sleep, they do other bodily functions...
And yet we travel far to see them. We wait for them, and pray for them. We put our hopes and dreams on them. We go through ups and downs and difficulty and uncertainty, but we go on making more of them. And each one is a miracle. And each one could grow up to be a king. What a beautiful thing to celebrate.