Did you get anything good?
We did alright. I got one thing I asked for. A few things I needed, a few things I wanted, a few things I didn’t remember I needed or had not yet become aware I wanted.
The first Christmas wish-list looked something like this:
healthy eyes, ears, voice
This might have been on Mary’s wish-list. This is the kind of stuff expectant parents are thinking. Somewhere down that list is hair color or baseball team allegiance. But the kind of stuff that keeps you up nights, wondering what to expect when you’re expecting, is pretty basic.
I’ve shared in conversations with new parents what it is like to welcome a new baby. One pretty common experience is the sense of gladness with whatever you get. My dad’s good advice on every stranger’s baby you ever meet: it is the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen. There’s a sense of wonder at this entirely new person, and the whole world of potential he or she holds to be and do and see and become something completely beyond your life so far.
Another common new parent experience is the uncomfortable sense you get that they are actually going to let you leave the hospital with this little person. Even if you’ve been to a few birthing classes and have the common sense not to feed a baby thumbtacks, you’re feeling awfully underprepared for the moment of launch. The trip from the maternity ward curb to the driveway is the most defensively driven route of a lifetime.
There is not much to prepare you for those first few hours, days, weeks. You’re running on adrenaline and instinct. And love. If you didn’t love that kid, you’d go somewhere it’s easier to sleep. And that’s just the first… eighteen years, I hear.
I wonder what those certain poor shepherds had on their wish-lists that night. I think of a few times in my life when I’ve wished an angel would appear and offer me some good news. Whether these guys were in crisis or just trying to stay awake for the rest of their shift, a heavenly host must have kicked some imaginative anticipation into high gear:
Good news: you got the call. Good news: we won the contract. Good news: you’re in remission. Good news: we took the majority. Good news: she said yes.
The message came with so much glory, and the content is so odd. Good news: It’s a baby.
A baby doesn’t win a war or resolve a personal conflict. A baby doesn’t heal all wounds or restore lost fortunes. A baby doesn’t forgive and forget. A baby can’t explain life or interpret the will of God. A baby may or may not even like me.
But a baby, said the prophet Isaiah, is a promise:
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.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Unto us a child is born. In the midst of our circumstances, our expectations, our past and present and strange attachments to nonexistent futures, comes an infant. This is faith’s beginning. This is incarnation; this is God-with-us. It is not the security of strength or the certainty of knowledge, it is the strange, dependent, unpredictable movement into a new, untested life. God, who is – as we wonder at this gift – another person entirely, with a life entirely beyond ours. God, whose will we cannot yet fully know, but who invites us to receive his life and will as ours, with the promise that as we rest our will in his, God-with-us “shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.” The discipleship of the world begins not with a call to arms, but the cry of a newborn.
Those shepherds, with whatever is on their wish-lists, say, “let’s go see this thing!”
And “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Christmas reminds us that the way in to God is to hear the announcement that God is come near, and to gather up whatever courage we need to become willing to shape our lives around whatever it takes for that baby to grow. To stay for the first awkward, weird weeks just for the love. To keep the promise in our hearts, and begin to want that more than anything else the universe could offer. Whether or not it was what we thought we wanted.
I think this is what Christmas is calling me to, in the hours, days, and weeks after Christmas. I think my kids are helping me learn this. I pray I’m making some progress, gaining some courage, glimpsing the great light. I believe that love is helping me become more willing, and I hope it will again tomorrow.
Be born in us today, and onwards, and for evermore. Amen.