The year 2008 is when things got totaled up, bills were presented, and markers called. We close the year hearing stories of staggering corruption, fraud, and mismanagement on the economic front, and in a social climate so broad-minded it allows every identity group to call itself “victim” and commence whining.
You can count on one hand the folks who feel contentment or hope these days and still have five fingers left.
Into this tumult arrives Christmas, and so convulsed is society that the season can find only a grudging welcome made by a distracted people. Christmas is costly in uncertain times. It is religious, when the “sophisticated” world is post-belief. Christmas is one more thing to feel victimized about, no matter who you are.
And it is so much damned work, too.
But then there is the story, and it has something for everyone.
An angel sent by God proposes an outrageous venture to a virgin Jewess who — at some personal risk — agrees to play her indispensable part. A quiet carpenter is enlisted to protect her and she is off — first to visit a cousin who is having a bit of an adventure of her own, what with her priest-husband suddenly struck mute and her aged womb alive with a rambunctious prophet. He makes his first pronouncement in utero, and the young Jewess launches into one of the greatest songs ever written. Then a census is called; heads must be counted so that taxes may be levied. The carpenter and his young wife travel by rough road to an obscure town, where they discover that obscure towns surrounded by bad roads are generally short on lodgings. They put up in a cave where, surrounded by oxen and asses, the woman gives birth to a son. She lays him in the manger, the food bin. In the starlit night, angels appear for a big musical number with a timely message: peace on Earth. There are shepherds and astrologers and even a king, but he’s a cynic.
Billions of people believe this story, which is only the prologue to a longer narrative. They suffer for this story. They survive for it. Sometimes they die for it. For believers, this story brings tidings of comfort and joy.
But in these difficult days, perhaps even non-believers can take some comfort in the story of Christmas. Certainly they can find inclusion in a narrative that showcases the speech-impaired, the doubting, the empowered women both young and old, the he-man protector-types, the showfolk (two songs!), the policy wonks, the farmers, the friends of animals, the professors, the privileged, and even the service industries.
With only a little effort, one can find even more: wonder at a mythology that departs from any other mythology to introduce not a god, but God-made-man; esteem in the notion that humanity is so valued and beloved of its Creator that he would want to set his tent among theirs; joy in a story of stars and angelsong and new life, and most of all — hope: that what has gone wrong may be made right; that frightening realities can be borne and incalculable debts paid down, that darkness may be pierced and shelter may be found.
We do not always understand a story at its beginning, or even in mid-narrative; endings are not always obvious.
Like the story of America, the Nativity of the Christ is a story of people drawn together from disparate lives, toward something brand new, something troubling to some and mysterious to most. But it is only a prologue. The story goes on, with dreadful twists — slaughter of innocents, flights of refuge, prophecies, intrigues, trickery, and stupid mistakes that no shepherd or king or mute old priest could ever have dreamed up. The ending breaks your heart, until three days later it reveals its secret — that the story does not end at all, that it goes on and on, still. It makes all things new.
The ringing-bowl emptiness of 2008 would appear to be the conclusion of the American prologue; but the story of Christmas is an invitation to hope for all who feel hopeless, or whose optimism has run dry. Even if one chooses not to believe, it reassures us that mid-narratives are always full of conflict and chaos and traps and treachery, but the story goes on. Merry Christmas.