December 24th, Christmas Eve, 2019
In the novel Slaughter House Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, the main character, Billy Pilgrim survives the horrors of the WWII bombing of Dresden, Germany. As the novel progresses, it bounces between moments in his life: some before the war, some after, some during. And at one point, Billy encounters these strange aliens called the Tralfamadorians. How we are to interpret the fact that aliens casually appear in this novel is a great topic for a college English paper, but for our purposes here on Christmas eve, the interesting thing about the Tralfamadorians is how they experience time.
See, whereas we humans move through time and often think of time in a linear fashion—one event, then the next, leads to the next, etc.—the Tralfamadorians experience all time at once. One of the aliens explains to Billy Pilgrim that it might be thought of as though looking out over the vast Rocky Mountain range. In the same way that we seek the expanse of peaks and valleys, they see all time at once. As such their novels are basically unintelligible to humans. There is no beginning, middle or end. No suspense, or moral, no causes, no effects. Just everything all at the same time.
It is a mind bending way to think about time, to be sure.
But for us, Christmas eve is about a very specific time, a particular time and place and cultural context. It is about the night on which Jesus was born in Roman-occupied Palestine, roughly 2000 years ago, in the town of Bethlehem, to an unmarried couple named Mary and Joseph.
There are particulars to the story. The events unfold in a certain order. First prophecies from hundreds of years before about a Messiah to be born. The long centuries of expectation among the people of Israel. The bewildering announcements of angels to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Then more angels, appearing to Mary, to Joseph. Then there are particular political realities which imposed themselves on these ordinary folks. Travel for a census. It is decreed by the Emperor; it is enforced locally by the tyrant Herod.
And there are but more angels, this time showing up in the wilderness to shepherds to announce a very particular birth, and very specific circumstances: Bethlehem, wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger. This is a Savior.
Much has been made about why God chose the particular time and place, the people involved: Mary, Joseph, anonymous shepherds, to be born incarnate. If God is infinite in time and power, why this moment? Why do it in this way: the messiness and pain of child birth to a teenage mother and her fiancé.
Among Spiritual Directors, there is a saying that “Why is not a spiritual question.” “Why?” is a question that leads you down the rabbit hole of psychology. Why can be answered with answers like: “Because of our parents, or our life experiences, or our historical context, or whims and fancies. Rather, they affirm, How, What, When, and Where are the core spiritual questions.
So while we might hazard guesses at why God chose that first Christmas for Jesus birth, we will spin our wheels round and round, while Freud checks his pocket watch and yawns.
Instead, we might ask ourselves what does it mean? What does it mean, really, when we dig under the tinsel veneer and Hallmark sentiments about the true Spirit of Christmas? What do we find there at the core?
We find that the “what” is God showing up in concrete, human, embodied ways. The what is God announcing in frightening, startling, perplexing ways that God is coming. It is dreams and visions. The what is God being conceived and carried and delivered. It is God being utterly reliant upon Mary for sustenance and life. It is God depending on Joseph overcoming his fears and stepping into the best version of himself as a father and partner. The what is God being born where births don’t usually happen, with animals and night sky as witnesses to Mary’s labor and triumph. The what is God showing us that Christmas means that Jesus, the Holy, can show up any time in any place, but particularly among the most downtrodden, the poorest, those most impacted by the crushing wheels of empire and oppression. It means God can show up at truck stops, at diners at 2 a.m., at bars on Christmas eve or bus stops, at playgrounds or alleyways or garages or motels or pull out couch beds or ordinary dinner tables. And it means that God delights to dwell in us. Not in some strictly spiritual sense, but in our very bodies. That divine love is flesh and blood, breathing, eating, touching.
The poet Tony Hoagland paints an evocative scene of love incarnate in our ordinary days in the poem “Lost Keys.” It starts:
Holding a black wire coat hanger in his hand, bending a loop in the tip with a pair of pliers, my neighbor Mr. Alvarado is walking down his drive
without a shirt, pale winter fat hanging over his belt, blue rings around his eyes .
He has come out like this on a February morning
to try to break into the car his son has locked the keys inside as the boy hovers in the background, arms crossed over his chest, carefully watching while pretending to be bored. They are trying hard
not to make a scene in the thin light of Sunday morning while the next-door neighbors snore —
and they could call up the garage , but Mr. Alvarado doesn’ t want to bring the experts in;
he wants to teach his son a thing or two a man should know .
is the thing you press your face against, trying to figure out how
to get inside without breaking it . Look, they are the proof : working the tip of the wire
under the rubber seal of the window frame ; carefully sliding the loop over and down
to snag the silver latch and open it.
Maybe there are times in our life when, as the poet says, love feels fragile, something we try to figure out how to get inside without breaking. But on this night, God breaks open the doors of love inside us, in our world. God opens up this door to show us that sacredness and miracle can be unbound and surprise us and live in us, all with imperfect people, and a child, a Savior, born in Bethlehem.