Festus Interruptus

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:6-7

Every year, I see the bright, sparkling lights and beautiful decorations starting to appear around this time; Christmas-themed variants of popular candies start chasing Halloween-themed candies off of store shelves; holiday movies start appearing by the dozens on Netflix; and it seems I hear the strains of Christmas carols just about everywhere I go.  This year especially, after such a long, dark, difficult year, it seems like folks started bringing out their holiday trappings even earlier than usual – small wonder, with so many of us stuck at home!  And while I am still – and will probably always be – a staunch defender of the season of Advent, I’m also feeling the desire for a little extra festivity this year myself.  I think it’s important this year to celebrate (safely!) in the ways we can, to distract ourselves and take a break from carrying all the stress we’ve been carrying, if only for a little while.

Yet there is deeper goodness to be found beyond these things.  Every year, in the midst of all the nice, shiny, pretty holiday things we love, we also read this story from Luke 2 – a story which, despite being depicted in countless adorable Christmas pageants, is actually not very nice or shiny or pretty at all.  More likely, it was dark and dirty and loud and crowded and confusing.  Back in Luke 1, Mary received an angelic visit, announcing that she will give birth to the savior of all humankind; she celebrates with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting an angel-announced miracle baby; Mary and Zechariah both have musical numbers; it’s all very exciting.  

But in Luke 2, Mary and Joseph are abruptly forced to make a 90 mile journey from their home on foot while Mary is in her ninth month of pregnancy, about ready to pop, and she ends up giving birth in a strange city while more than likely holed up in a crowded house with her in-laws and all their animals.  It’s impossible to know what Mary had planned or envisioned it would look like giving birth to the savior of all humankind, but I’m guessing that this was not it.

Yet this is how God chose to take on flesh and come into the world.  Not in royal style, in a palace surrounded by nobles and attended by servants.  Not even in a festive style, with bright sparkling lights and candies and pageants and carols.  God came in a humble and unexpected way, to people whose lives had been upended and interrupted by forces beyond their control.  God chose to come among people in the midst of disruption.

And I find that to be a very hopeful story in a time like this.  Our lives have been so disrupted and upended this year, dealing with a calamity of literally biblical scale.  And the truth we have to contend with is that, whatever we had planned or envisioned it would look like celebrating the birth of the savior of all humankind this year, this simply is not going to be it.  Whatever number of “wave” we’re on with this pandemic, this spike is the highest yet and still climbing – and we know from public health experts that it’s precisely the family and church gatherings we’re longing to have that are the most dangerous spreaders of disease.  Our celebrations this year will have to be remote and virtual, and smaller in many ways than what we’d hoped for (though, in other ways, larger too!).  The disruption of this year continues.

Yet this is still how God chooses to come among us.  Throughout all of scripture – not just in this story – God often comes to people when they are on the road or in the wilderness or in some other way out of their element.  It seems that we are most likely to encounter God when we are taken out of our comfort zones.  So this year, I think the best any of us can do is to live into the disruption and to embrace the weirdness that comes with it – and to wait with hope and expectation and faith that God will show up once again, just as God has done before.

First published in St. John’s December 2020 newsletter.

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