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In 1223, in the Italian village of Greccio, St. Francis of Assisi constructed the first crèche (from the French word for “cradle” or “crib”), to encourage Christians to enter imaginatively into the scene of the Nativity. After filling a manger with hay and tying an ox and an ass nearby, St. Francis attended Mass before the crib along with villagers. Three centuries later St. Ignatius Loyola invited believers who were making the Spiritual Exercises to imagine Mary and Joseph as they made their way to Bethlehem. “See in imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem,” wrote Ignatius. “Consider its length and breadth, whether it is level or winds through valleys and hills. Similarly, look at the place or cave of the Nativity: How big is it, or small? How low or high? And how is it furnished?”

The Nativity is among the most familiar of images for Christians: The beautiful young virgin cradles her newborn child in her arms as her doting husband (not to mention the placid animals and astonished shepherds) look on lovingly. But it is also an image that can grow stale as a person grows older, so it is easy to overlook the scene as a possible source of fresh and even surprising spiritual insights. It is also easy to forget that while the person at the center of the story was fully divine, each member of the Holy Family—including Jesus—was fully human. In these difficult times, what might the experiences of these three individuals, as they make their way through the days surrounding the Nativity, say to us in our world—particularly to those who are unemployed, ill or in any way struggling?

Jesus. First of all, an infant is entirely dependent on others for every physical need, starting with nourishment. In these difficult times, many adults begin to feel they are becoming more and more dependent on others, perhaps even for nourishment. Can we see that dependence as something holy, rather than as something to be rejected? An infant is also trusting, looking to the parent to do the right thing. Can this be our stance toward God? A child is vulnerable to a host of things—illness, pain, frustration. Can we let ourselves be vulnerable with one another, sharing our frustrations and pain? But despite its helplessness, every dependent, trusting and vulnerable infant is the repository of almost unlimited promise and potential. Even in dark times there is always the hope of something new.

Mary. It is commonplace to aver that Mary was trusting, faith-filled and holy. Most likely she was also confused. This is evident from her words to Gabriel at the Annunciation: “How can this be?” In confusing times, can we permit ourselves feelings of holy confusion without the normal attending guilt? Mary was tired. The arduous months of pregnancy, the grueling journey to Bethlehem and the unanesthetized labor would have been severely taxing. We are not at our best when we are physically tired. Finally, Mary also relies on her own experience of God, incommunicable to others, which fills her with the confidence to carry out her mission boldly in the face of confusion and weariness.

Joseph. Given no words to speak in the Gospels, Joseph did little that is known to us; even the details of his death remain unknown. Thus, his life, like those of so many around us, is one of hiddenness. Can we see our actions as holy if they are not known by others? Can our deeds be, in Henri Nouwen’s phrase, “known by God but hidden from the world”? Joseph works. He provides the wherewithal for the care and feeding of his wife and child. Any honest labor is noble, no matter how much it pays. And Joseph worries: his initial fears for his family most likely did not subside. Like many Americans, he was caught under the heel of powers far beyond his control and was still required to struggle for his family. Can we allow ourselves worry from time to time, as even the saints did?

The world, finally, into which Jesus was born was, like our own, riven with competing religious factions, roiled by political controversies and marked by great economic disparities. Luke’s Gospel situates the story of Jesus’ birth in a real place with real problems. The Messiah was born in occupied territory. Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph were planning to raise Jesus, was considered a backwater town. Galilee itself was seen by other Jews as an inferior place because of the continuing presence of Gentiles there. In his book Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, the New Testament scholar Donald Senior, C.P., notes that this gave the region a “demeaning reputation in the eyes of mainline Judaism.” In short, from the beginning, the Holy Family had to deal with problems relating to politics, economics and religion—like most of us.

This year, for many Americans the Christmas story may take on greater meaning and import as they look to the real-life struggles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Entering into the scene means entering into the lives of fully human people, whose experiences can enable us to deepen our relationship with God, who is near us, with us and one of us: Emmanuel.

Comments

TIMOTHY REGAN MD DR | 1/3/2010 - 6:17am

mea culpa!!  Catechism is with an e, not an a.  TJR 

TIMOTHY REGAN MD DR | 1/2/2010 - 1:53pm

I understand Mary being tired, the arduous months of pregnancy, and the grueling journey to Bethleham; but, the unanaesthetized Labor is a bit too much. I thought Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the Christ Child's birth (Catachism of The Catholic Church: 496-507, 510 )?? Please explain! I choose to believe that, like Jesus passing through the locked doors of the Upper Room after the Resurrection, He also passed through Mary's Uterus and Abdominal Wall the same way...COMMENT: Many 3rd world countries don't consider anaesthesia necessary for normal childbirth; indeed, the Lamaze Method is now a very popular method even in our "Sophisticated Society". Timothy J Regan MD

C Walter Mattingly | 12/18/2009 - 10:30am

Thank you for this loving contemplation and call to action. Ignatius would be-is, rather-pleased by your work.

Samra Bufkins | 12/16/2009 - 12:54pm

I have fallen in love with the Mexican tradition of the Posada, a children's ceremony in which the children re-enact the journey of Mary and Joseph.  Children, either dressed as Mary and Joseph, or more often carrying statues of the Holy Family, go door to door asking for a place to stay, while other children and adults sing the Posada song that tells the story.  At the last home (all of this is prerranged) they are admitted, and prayers, readings and more songs follow.  Afterward there is a celebration, but the focus of the evening is on the Holy Family's journey and how difficult it was for them to find lodging on their journey.  Whether this is done in an elaborate setting, such as a church or town square, or in a humble neighborhood, the message is the same, and the children know from an early age what Christmas is all about.  I did not see the crass materialism associated with Christmas in the United States during my Christmas stay in Mexico, where the focus is truly on the birth of Christ. 

lLetha Chamberlain | 12/14/2009 - 2:16am

A one-time obstetrical nurse (a short sojourn) in career, I think of Our Lady laboring (a messy affair, to say the least) with straw to clean herself-probably little water (or cold at that)... and think of the power of God to forestall child-bed fever, considering there was probably animal manure, bat dung, or whatever in the vicinity... cold (without heat or anything to insulate much), but perhaps the oxen or donkeys warmed the stable with their breathing and body heat.  With all that-how could it be very romantic?  So, I no longer see the romance, but the grandeur of God's power and grace, and the courage of the parents.  I'm also more and more seeing what modern medicine DOESN'T need (our saying "yes" to high costs, insensitive medical personnel who know nothing about who the patient is, and more and more technology which de-personalizes-or it is this that the Holy Family actually experienced: de-personalization?)  Welcome to the world, Lord Jesus-it hasn't changed much.  Like infants, we're helpless without You!

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