Note: This was first published last Advent, following the shootings in Newtown…
Vol. 3 – Defiantly Demanding Redemption
“In sober fact there is little romance or beauty in the thought of a young woman looking desperately for a place where she could give birth to her first baby… it is a bitter commentary upon the world that no one would give up a bed for the pregnant woman – and that the Son of God must be born in a stable.” (22)
-JB Phillips “The Dangers of Advent” (From Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)
Desperation is a word I rarely hear attributed with the Christmas story. But when I read this quote, I thought, Yes. Mary was desperately searching. Searching for a place. But also, searching for relief, searching for rest, searching for help.
Of course a young girl and her betrothed, traveling at pregnancy’s full term, without family or connections, would be desperate.
Did Mary have a midwife? Who provided the cloths she used to wrap her newborn son? Who cleaned the blood off the ground in the shed where her child was born? Was her betrothed—this man she probably barely knew and who probably had never seen her in any intimate way—was he the one delivering this child? How long was she in labor? How desperately did she cry out to God? Did she have some secret hope that the angel who had appeared to her nine months before would materialize again in this moment and make the suffering end, allow the child to be born miraculously without pain?
As I write this, I’ve just sent my boys and husband off to the science museum and then spent the next fifteen minutes looking at the New York Times, forcing myself to read the name and age of every child murdered in Newtown, forcing myself to read descriptions of the teachers who lost their lives on Friday. I want to ignore it. I went to a party Friday night and tried not to think about the parents grieving across the country, fifteen minutes from my father-in-law’s home. But I owed them some time. I owed them my awareness of their names.
This morning at our church, a mass of three to five year olds galloped up to the stage and sang “Away in the Manger” with all the signs. As always, there was the one kid who sang loud and out of tune and every once in a while got the wrong word, while the majority of the kids (like mine) were so entranced with the hand motions, that they forgot to sing at all. Parents were all leaning forward, holding smart phones in the air with the red light flashing, or giving thumbs up. That’s what parents are supposed to spend this weekend doing. Cheering for their kids, mentally begging their child to remember the next word to the carol. It should never be otherwise.
Then I think about Mary and Joseph entering Bethlehem, her contractions overcoming her, her body directing her to make room for birth, her betrothed frantically searching for someone to help him, I think about how desperately we’re all frantically searching for a place. We need place to rest, a place to grieve. We need a place to celebrate, to wonder, to create. We all need a place. And sometimes we need to make to space in the midst of the hopeless option we’ve been dealt.
What did Mary and Joseph find? A stable, a cowshed. What did God make it into? A place of glory, a place lit from the sky, a place where strangers came to find hope.
After the kids sang this morning, my pastor stood up and spoke about Christmas as being the story of Light coming into the darkness defiantly. He said Christmas is the story of God coming boldly into a world of violence.
I began to think of my own doubt, my own desperate cries to God to Do something around here! My frustration of how empty the words redemption and restoration can feel in this life, like nice words that we can’t really see in reality. Instead, reality is a world where a 20-year-old boy enters our most sacred space, a school for children, and destroys: their lives, their families’ lives, our sense of safety.
My pastor says Christmas is defiant. It is choosing to believe in God’s goodness, his nearness, his God-with-us-ness.
I sat in that room this morning, filled up from watching my little boy sign “stars” by ka-pow-ing his fingers all over the sky, and I remembered what I’ve been learning for a long time: Doubt is my gut-reaction, but grace lets me be defiant even to the doubt. Yes, the darkness is here. It is with us; it shapes our lives too often. But I will choose to believe that darkness will not have the final word.
Yes, I may doubt and question and raise my voice at the sky, but belief means I choose to defy the darkness. I choose the Light.
I choose to make space for light in the thick sorrow of this world.
I want to be a Mary who takes the stable offered and brings forth a King among the animal dung. I want to be the shepherd who wonders at the angel song in the tense quiet of the night sky.
I want to light a candle, defiantly. I want to light a candle to say: I believe in redemption. I demand redemption. I believe in hope. I demand it.