Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream.
[Matthew 1: 19-20 The Message]
Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him – whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend – be our companion
When Liv pukes in the car on her outing to the Christmas tree farm, we deal with it the way we always deal with mess. I am ready at the back door for them getting back, alerted by text. Cleaning supplies at the ready. She is stripped down on the door mat. Clothes straight into machine. Wipes straight into plastic bags. Chris cleans the car mats outside, I clean the child and by the time the washing machine is spinning and the mats are back in place and the sudded up child is watching Charlie and Lola, you wouldn’t know anyone had puked.
We think we are dealing with mess and vomit, but really we are dealing with machines and convenience materials and waste disposal. We pride ourselves on our efficiency. Eliminate the smell and the lumpy bits. Sanitise. Straighten up.
When we traipse round the muddy Santa trail in the dark we think we are earthy, outdoorsy kind of people. No shiny shopping centres for us! We return to the car caked in mud and smelling of camp fire. The girls are sticky from toasted marshmallows and spilt hot chocolate. But we deal with the mess the way we always deal with mess. Layers removed before they can touch car seats. Wipes used and bagged up. Welly boots straight into the box that’s ready in the boot.
For those of you who know Chris you can imagine what he is like trying to straighten a Christmas tree.
I watch him out the kitchen window pushing and prodding the branches, trying to make a wild thing straight.
I am attracted to words like ‘wild’ and ‘messy’, words like ‘discomfort’. I think I love them. I gravitate towards other messy mums and to people who talk about their faith as messy, especially at Christmas.
Yet I often struggle to tolerate mess, wildness and discomfort. I struggle with everything that is unresolved, even though the poets write so beautifully about it.
I want it bagged up, cleaned, or discarded.
When I watch Chris carefully bend those branches, watch him fully lost in ‘Operation Christmas Tree’ (how to acquire, transport and set up a Nordman Fir in your home with minimal mess and zero unanticipated moments), well, I wonder about Joseph, what kind of a man he was. Was he a man like Chris… one who liked a plan and order, one who just, always, wanted to do the right thing? I imagine Chris having to deal with angels and an unexplained pregnancy. I can imagine they might have said about him, later, that he was a noble man… described him trying to deal with things quietly, trying to figure a way out.
I often find myself, in December, imagining the characters in my own life right into the nativity script. I know my imagination doesn’t come close.
I often find myself, in December, saying I love the messiness of the Christmas story, the wildness, the humanity.
But, truthfully, isn’t it hard to tolerate?
When can we move on to the bit where everything is cleaned up, straightened or discarded, washing machine whirring comfortingly beside us?
I understand how some of our songs and traditions have sanitised Christmas. I understand the urge to try to make the wild things straight.
I often find myself, in December, reflecting on the year with frustration at my messiness and humanity, at the things I haven’t manage to discard yet. In January I pick a ‘word for a year’ and in December I have to make peace with how that’s worked out for me! In December I want to apologise for the ways I’m still messy, for being so human as a wife and a mother and so on.
In December I come back to this crazy story and think of how we would all try to get out of it, how often I am trying to get out of it still.
But Henri Nouwen says that the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation is that we are not alone on our journey. “God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy… The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be... Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone.”
And so for everything that we cannot straighten, or tolerate or really admit to, there’s the great mystery of Christmas: we are not alone on our journey. I find myself here every December – messy, chagrined, comforted and consoled.