Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Christmas Happens: Christ Is Always Present among Those for Whom There Is No Room at the Inn

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Christmas Happens: Christ Is Always Present among Those for Whom There Is No Room at the Inn

Article excerpt

Do you think Christmas really happened that way?" I asked my friend Brian one cold winter evening at the Catholic Worker farm as we gathered wood for a Christmas Eve bonfire.

My question was prompted by the commentary by various New Testament scholars I had been reading on the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew. I had different ears when I heard the familiar scripture proclamations at Mass in the weeks leading up to Christmas: Isaiah's promise of lions and lambs living together in peace, Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the journey to Bethlehem, Joseph's dream, and finally the birth of Jesus.

Through carols, pageants, and Christmas card images, the two distinctive infancy narratives had been seamlessly merged in my imagination, though they are quite distinct and reflect Matthew's and Luke's respective points of view. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary start in Bethlehem and come to Nazareth. In Luke they start in Nazareth and come to Bethlehem. Luke emphasizes Mary's courageous response to the angel's invitation, whereas Matthew presents Joseph as a model of faithful obedience in his response to his visionary dream. We get the gift-bearing magi only in Matthew's gospel and the humble shepherds in Luke's, though my family's heirloom nativity set--like nearly all nativity sets I have seen--include both sets of characters. Asked to dissect the infancy narratives with various methods of interpretation, I had lost a certain naivete as we moved through the Advent season.

"I mean," I explained to Brian, as we tramped through the central Virginia woods picking up kindling with mittened hands, "do you think there were really shepherds, wise men, the star, angels... all that is described in Luke and Matthew?"

I wanted Brian's take on the historical veracity of the infancy narratives, but he heard my question differently.

"I think it really happens that way," he answered. "I think God comes into this world poor and in unexpected places."

Bryan's breath came out in cold white puffs before his face as he told me that the stories need not be dissected as historical documents. Rather, they offer a timeless pattern of truth. The story of what happened 2,000 years ago in Palestine provides a template for looking for how God is present in the world today.

God arrives in ways that are small, poor, hidden, and unexpected and comes into a world torn by violence, battered by the death-dealing forces of empire, struggling against powers and principalities that seek to extinguish the light. God is here among people who are overlooked and marginalized. God is decidedly present among those for whom--in the here and now--there is no room at the inn.

"I think Christmas really happens that way," Brian said, his voice deep and strong.

Brian's response helped me to hear the Christmas story in a new way and pulled me out of the academic rabbit hole into which I had plunged. After all, no matter how little or how much exploring of the historical and literary context of scripture we do, it is ultimately our task to reflect on how the gospel is brought to life today in our context.

The plot of the Christmas story has been sanitized for children's books and prettied up through our annual holiday festivities, and then further obscured and secularized by much later cultural additions of red-nosed reindeer, Santa Claus, snowmen, and the like. Though we harmoniously sing in a major key about the "silent night, holy night" of that "little town of Bethlehem," Mary and Joseph took risks, faced exclusion, endured the hardship of Roman occupation, and lived with threats of violence. …

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