A young woman, Mary, engaged to marry, becomes pregnant. Surprised, confused and disappointed, her fiancé Joseph considers breaking off their engagement rather than expose her to public humiliation and perhaps even execution for adultery. Meanwhile, Mary’s elderly cousin Elizabeth, beyond childbearing age, suddenly finds herself pregnant as well. Her husband Zachariah is dumbstruck. Literally. Mary heads into the hill country of Judea to share her good news and help Elizabeth. In all likelihood, Mary acted as Elizabeth’s midwife.
Thus, amid very human drama the “greatest story ever told” begins. The Gospel skillfully intertwines the human and divine elements surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This is appropriate since Jesus is both human and divine. Keeping these two realities in balance, however, remains our constant challenge.
Through the stories of Jesus’ birth recorded in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the seasons of Advent and Christmas invite us to reverence our humanity even as we celebrate God’s plan at work in the everyday events of human life.
Sometimes we let the miracles overshadow Jesus’ humanity. But if we stick to Scripture, surprising details emerge. There is no indication Mary saw an angel except for once in Nazareth, when she said yes to God. Angels appeared to shepherds in the field, but after that, the story leads them and us to the humble stable in which to find the Baby Jesus. We feel the wonder when Magi come to worship the child but soon share the fear of Joseph and Mary, who learn King Herod wants to kill the child. The Holy Family becomes history’s most famous refugees, not unlike so many who are forced to flee their homes today.
Advent candles and Christmas carols and concerts celebrate the mystery of God sanctifying our human existence—with all its joys and sorrows—by becoming one of us. More and more these days, people of different cultures around the world celebrate the Incarnation with symbols from their ordinary lives that are meaningful to them.
In the Korean countryside, a family traditionally announced the birth of a boy by stringing red peppers from the thatched roof. Some modern Korean crèches incorporate this custom. In Mexico, families re-enact Joseph and Mary seeking an inn (posada) by visiting the homes of relatives and neighbors on the nine days leading up to Christmas. In rural Tanzania, parents who can afford to, buy new clothes for their children. Children gratefully receive homemade toys instead of video games. Christians attend religious services all morning long and have family get-togethers and share a special meal.
All this serves as a reminder: before it was a book, the Gospel was a life. To fully appreciate its power, we need to do more than just read it or even believe it; we have to live it by recognizing the mystery and the very presence of God at work in the ordinary, human events of our everyday lives.
Featured Image: Two teenagers, Saul Gonzalez and Kenia Salas, play the parts of Joseph and Mary searching for shelter before the birth of the Baby Jesus in a binational “posada” along the international border fence in Nogales, Mexico. (CNS/N. Wiechec)