When I first started meditating on the nativity as a Jesuit novice, my meditations focused on the theological import of the event. Happily, I have a fairly vivid imagination, so it was easy to imagine the birth scene just as if I were there, as St. Ignatius Loyola suggests in his Spiritual Exercises. In my minds eye, I could see the inky night, the crude shelter, the sleepy-eyed cows, the exhausted parents and the squalling baby. And it was easy to feel amazed by the Incarnation, when God chose to pitch his tent among us, as some translations of the Gospel of John have it (1:14).
But until the birth of my first nephew, I never appreciated how a newborn child can change everything. When he was born nine years ago, I was astonished by the way our family immediately changed its focus. Our hearts were now centered on a little child. What did he do yesterday? What is he doing today? What will he do tomorrow? How miraculous that God had created a brand-new person, someone we could never have imagined, who would change our lives. The same happened with my sisters second child, born two years ago, who is a gift in equal measure, but so different from the first.
Nor had I appreciated the accompanying worry, and sometimes fear, that goes with childrearing. (Still, I dont fully understand it, since Im not a parent.) When I think about my nephews, I pray that nothing bad will happen to them, hope that they will be physically well and desire that they will be happy. But I know that at some point the world will be painful for them.
Most likely it was similar for Mary and Joseph as they pondered the future of their baby. While Lukes Gospel offers a brief sketch of how Mary discovered Gods plan for her (2:26-38), we have little idea of her innermost thoughts attending the birth of her son. As the New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., says about the annunciation, What really happened? We shall never know. We have even less insight into Josephs heart; Marys husband is completely silent in Scripture.
We can assume that Mary and Joseph must have gathered from a variety of sourcesthe angelic messages, the dreams, the unique birth of their son, the strange utterances of Simeon and Annathat their babys life likely would be a strange one, filled with unusual joys and sorrows. And so they protected him as best they could, first sheltering him from the elements and later, in Egypt, from Herods murderous wrath. But did they know, even then, that they would not be able to protect him forever?
All of us are called to emulate Mary and Joseph. We are invited to listen carefully to God, to respond with a trusting yes (often, like Mary, after some questioning) and, finally, to bring Christ into the worldnot in his flesh, but in ours and in other ways important today.
And we are called to nurture our faith, which can be as precious and fragile as a newborn child. This does not mean that we jealously guard our faith from the world, but that we understand that our faith and our vocations need to be nourished, cared for and revered as gifts from God.
These are calls for every Christian, no matter who we are or where we came from. In the Christmas vigil Mass, the Gospel reading is taken from Matthew, who details the genealogy of Jesus family (1:18-25). That seemingly interminable list shows that the Messiah came from a long line of people who were not perfect. Within his family are a few unsavory characters. (You think your family is dysfunctional? Read Matthew.) Out of that holy but entirely human tree grew a new green shoot that would change everything.
How overwhelming the first Christmas must have been for Mary and Joseph. Few things can provoke such intense worry as a newborn child. Ask any parent. But few things promise such unreasonable hope, such unexpected change and such unbounded joy.
May your heart be newborn this Christmas.