“Are you ready for Christmas?” we ask each other, as we try to make polite conversation during Advent. In response, we either shake our heads despairingly and mutter, “No, I’ve hardly started” or we modestly chirp, “Yes, just barely. I just got everything done.” The trouble with Christmas, however, is that we are never prepared; we are never ready. There is always that one gift that we should have given, that one card that never gets sent; there is the one batch of cookies that burns and leaves the tin half empty; there is the relative who gets sick and can’t join the celebration, the child who throws up on the new Christmas dress, the dog who eats the ornaments off of the bottom part of the tree right before the guests arrive. On a deeper level, there is the annoying relative whom we can’t seem to forgive, despite our best efforts. There are the prayers that were left unsaid in our hurried preparations. There are the hearts where peace has not yet penetrated and the unhealthy family dynamics that we haven’t been able to fix just yet. We are never ready for the Christmas feast because we are torn between the ideal, Norman Rockwell vision in our heads and the real-life potential disasters in our kitchens or our living rooms.
But what about the birth in the stable? As we enter each year into the story of Jesus’ birth, our attitude seems to vacillate between the same extremes. On the one hand, we coo over the sweet little baby in the hay, idealizing the scene, turning the real-life baby Jesus into a docile image on a harmless Christmas card. Or on the other hand, we insist on the sufferings of the baby and his parents, emphasizing the prickly, insect-ridden hay, the bloody birth, the smelly animals, and the poor, dirty shepherds. “Look how he suffered for us, even as a baby,” we sigh, forgetting that love, not suffering, is God’s desire. The real question for us to ask one another this Christmas is not, “Are we ready for the feast?” but “Are we ready to see, really and clearly to see, what God’s love looks like in this world?”
God sent love to us as a baby, and are we ever truly ready for a baby? Clearly, Mary and Joseph were not ready. We know the story of Jesus’ birth so well that it takes some doing to imagine the surprise and disruption that it must have been for everyone involved. Jesus could not have come at a worse time for his parents. They weren’t married yet. They were traveling dusty roads at the whim of Roman bureaucracy. They weren’t living in the town that matched up with the messianic prophecies. They didn’t even have a decent place to stop for the birth. It’s been awhile since my children were babies, but I clearly remember feeling them kick inside me, sensing the inevitability of their birth, and knowing that, despite all of the books that I had read about babies, I was not at all prepared—would never be prepared—for the joys and responsibilities that this new love would entail.
One of my favorite icons of Mother and Child portrays the baby Jesus, no longer a newborn, snuggling up against his Mother, propelling himself rather uncomfortably against her face. The baby has thrown his arms around his mother’s neck and pushed himself as close as he can possibly get with his feet against her lap. Mary looks rather unprepared for the force of her baby’s enthusiastic love; it is almost as if he could knock her over with it. Rowan Williams writes that God, in coming to us as a baby, searches us out, “as unselfconscious and undignified as the clinging child.” Are we ever prepared for such an outpouring of love from our Heavenly Father? We seek God, but we are often uncomfortable when God seeks us back. Are we ever ready for God to wrap a warm, tiny fist around our finger and hold on for dear life? To burrow into our being as if everything depended on it? To cry for us to take him in our arms? Such is the vulnerable, insistent Love that comes down from heaven this day. Whether we are ready or not.
As a baby, Jesus showed us his love for us by his appearance among us. As a grown man, Jesus also showed his love for us by his presence with us. He loved the outcast by eating with them. He loved the sick by touching them with his healing hands. He loved the world by refusing to escape from us when we handed him death on a Cross. In the same way, what Jesus expects from us now is that we respond to his love for us by our presence with the outcast. All Jesus asks, writes Gregory Boyle, is “’Where are you standing?’ And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, ‘Are you still standing there?’” The God who comes to us as a baby, then, does not ask for us to be ready, competent, or prepared. The God who comes to us as a baby asks that we hold him and those whom he loves, that we stand with them for as long as it takes, come what may.
I was looking at our Nativity Scene the other day and thinking about all of the figures that stand there every Sunday during Advent, as the crowd in the stable slowly grows. Year after year, Advent after Advent, in the same places, stolid and dependable, they stand before the manger, while we rush around getting ready for Christmas. On Friday when I came into the church, there they were, still standing there quietly in their usual places, as our faithful St. Thomas decorators swirled busily around them, putting up the poinsettias, setting up the altar, getting out the candles … getting ready for Christmas. Tonight (today), as love comes down from heaven, maybe it is not a question of whether or not we are ready. Maybe it is a question of where we are standing.