This weekend my family traveled to visit my wife’s family in Southwestern Kansas for Thanksgiving. Since our families are so far spread around the country, we have made it our annual tradition to switch off spending Thanksgiving and Christmas between my family and hers. I’ve been looking forward to this holiday season in particular, since the move to Dallas has been as stressful and overwhelming as moving to a new state usually is. We spent the normal four days with my in-laws before heading back on the road.
On the way back I became acutely aware that we live further away from my family than we did in Kansas City. A drive that used to comfortable fit in an afternoon now took the entire second half of the day, which is a long time to spend in a van with two preschoolers. In between bouts of listening to Christmas music and wondering what we were going to do about the chocolate milk The Big One spilled on a library book, there was plenty of time to just sit and think. I reflected that I didn’t yet feel like we were heading “home” even though we were heading to where all of our things are. Dallas isn’t yet at a place where it feels like where we belong.
One might say the concept of “home” is largely one of familiarity, which means it’s only a matter of time until we get to that place. We made the decision last year to stay home until Christmas day, so that we could begin to form some family traditions on Christmas morning. Because of that decision, we’re spending almost all of the holiday season in what still feels like a foreign land to me.
I’ve always approached Christmas from the standpoint of my faith, and it was this Sunday, the first one of Advent, when I found just a little kinship with Joseph and Mary. There’s an unfortunate Christian tendency to clean up every Bible story so that the edges are sanded away. We prefer to approach stories in the abstract, focusing perhaps on their theological impact rather than treating them as stories with characters. I had always thought (and indeed been told) that the significance of Jesus being born in a manger, when there was no room in the inn, was that he was born in the humblest of circumstances. This is a fundamental aspect of how we understand the concept of Christ, that he was born in the lowest and least honorable circumstances. That strikes me as a solid reading of the account in Luke, but it is a white-gloved one devoid of human emotion.
This past Sunday I realized that the experience of Mary and Joseph was an absolute trainwreck. Let’s take a look at the account in Luke. Here we have Mary, about to pop with a baby. (Scripture says the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit when she was a virgin, but I think we can all guess how that explanation was received by her family and community.) And then she and her husband-to-be are compelled to travel forty miles by foot to his hometown for a census. Then when they get there she goes into labor, away from all of her family. And then there’s no place for her to stay and actually have the baby, so she’s forced to have her firstborn son in a barn. And then there’s no place to actually let the baby sleep, so he sleeps in a food trough. This is not some lovely tender moment. This is chaos, a far cry from how they would have wanted to have their first child. If anyone felt like they were away from their home at the most important time, it was Mary and Joseph.
Even those of you who have no use for the traditional religious aspect of Christmas can relate to that holiday chaos. We like to paint a picture of a season dominated by pastoral scenes, but the Christmas season is an absolute zoo. There’s the hullabaloo of shopping, travel, extra cooking, and the endless parade of activities that occupy both us and our children. We come to the 25th completely spent and desperately needing to take a week off from life to gather our sanity. And like Charlie Brown, some of us feel guilty about it, like we’re somehow violating the spirit of Christmas by being so busy. If we’re honest, maybe we project a little of that guilt on other people.
But when we hit that point it’s helpful to remember that the Nativity story is not a pastoral one. It’s a story of a couple in their most vulnerable point in life, forced into an incredibly uncomfortable position by circumstances largely beyond their control. Even those who don’t otherwise care can identify with that. Those of us who do care can find comfort in the knowledge that the chaos of the season is nothing new, and does nothing to diminish the miracle of Christmas.