Holy Night

There is a story we tell, about our first date. Jordana had a notion that your favorite story from childhood can say a lot about who you were (and hence, who you are) and how you grew up. Her favorite childhood story is called “Clever Elsie” about a girl who is so smart and second-guesses herself so often that she ends up losing everything and wandering the world alone, and that’s a can of worms I can’t even address in an aside in a blog. But when she asked me, I told her that my favorite story was the Christ child’s birth.

I suppose it goes without saying that we were at a passover seder. Or… yeah, maybe I should point that out.

I am a non-believer. I know so many of my friends go with “agnostic” as a way of hedging their intellectual bets, but I genuinely think I’m a straight-up Atheist. A non-god-ist. Everything in my life that felt magical at the time can be so easily explained. Standing in a field with a beautiful girl who said, “I bet you could make it rain right now” and I said, “here you go -” and it started raining… that’s very cool, and was a big moment for 16 year old me, but I made it rain in the summer in New Jersey. It rains every 45 minutes. If I did that in New Mexico, I’d start believing in magic.

But 13 years ago, when asked, it was still the birth of Christ that moved me so completely that I wasn’t able to tell the story without choking up.

A young woman marries an old man and before they can consumate the marriage, she reveals that she’s pregnant. The old man sits in a room by himself for an hour or so and then he comes in and says, “Listen, I don’t know. I don’t know about any of this. But I know this, I made you a promise, that I would be your husband and that we would make a family. So, however you got this way… I’m yours. If you tell me it was God, then so be it. Either way, I’m yours.”

As she gets bigger and more uncomfortable and more sick, they suddenly get the news that they have to go all the way to Bethlehem for a census. And they have nothing, Joseph is a day-laborer, all they’ve got is a donkey. So, he puts Mary on the donkey and they walk all the way to Bethlehem. They have to leave *now* or they’re not gonna make it.

They go, but they make terrible time. She’s huge, she’s miserable, even riding the donkey hurts, and walking is only a little better. They’re getting later and later, the days they thought they would be in Bethlehem are slipping away. By the time they waddle into town they find that all the public houses are already full of everyone *else* who needs to be counted for the census. And every hotel, motel, holiday inn is owned by some Bethelehemian who’s already psyched that his every room is packed. They all turn him away.

After hours of trying, they finally get to an inn, and the guy who runs the place sees Mary and says, “look, all the rooms are full, but I have an idea. The barn is actually really nice. I know it might seem crazy, but the barn is actually *warmer*, the place is full of hot-blooded animals and I’ll bring you some blankets and stuff.” He can’t kick anyone out that would be unfair, but he can do *something*.

As soon as they get in, Mary goes into labor. It’s her first time, and she’s terrified. But there’s a stableman and shepherds and they hear the screams and they know what it is. They come to the barn and they lean down to her and say, “Listen. I know this is terrible, I know this is hard, but look around you. Every one of these goats and sheep and lambs and ox were born by our hands. We’ve seen birth a hundred times and this is what it looks like, you’re gonna be fine.”

And the food had been eaten out of the manger a long time ago, so one of the shepherds helped Joseph line it with straw. And the baby came into the world, and one of the shepherds brought Mary water and another shepherd wrapped the baby in a swaddle. The animals knew what this was, they just stood around keeping watch and giving off heat.

As the baby was being born, some of the shepherds went to find some little things they could bring the baby and the word spread. A child was born, shivering in the night, let’s bring comfort to him and his family. Because we’ve all had children, we’ve given birth or watched our wives and sisters give birth and we know – this sucks, right now. This is as hard as it’s ever gonna be, so let’s do something tonight.

So, they came, they rallied. Middle of the night, but they brought presents for the baby, the baby being born in a barn and now sleeping in a trough for animal feed. And maybe a boy softly played a drum, maybe three wise men brought expensive gifts and maybe a voice came from the sky and terrified the shepherds on a nearby hill, but none of that is as important as what these people went through.

Because… maybe the Christ child was always meant to be Jesus Christ. But maybe not. At that point, he was a baby in trouble with a mom and dad in just as much trouble. Broke, exhausted, sleeping in a barn, born with nothing, my ancestral brothers and sisters stepped up. They had something, some small thing, and they saw a family that was in need and they reached down. A thousand small kindnesses were laid at this baby’s feet, a thousand moments when someone could have closed the door or let the labor cries go un-noticed, they instead said, “we are people, and this baby is ours.”

In my retelling of the story, we made this baby into a teacher of kindness and love. We started on his first day, we showed him the very best of humanity, we showed him that love – without ambition, without ego, without credit or cash – was the thing that defined the best of who we are.

I don’t believe he was the messiah, I don’t believe he was the lamb and I don’t believe there was some magic moment when all the sins that ever were and all the sins that ever would be were laid upon him so he could die. Honestly, none of that even makes *sense* to me. But I believe that on that night, we showed that family that every person, any person, can live a sacred life.

When I hear them say, “Fall on your knees. Hear the angels voices. Oh night, divine – oh night, when Christ was born,” I am moved to tears not because I believe this baby would grow to be a man that could save us all. I cry because this is one time, one time of countless thousands, when we came together to save this baby. And because we did he grew to be one of our greatest teachers. The angels’ voices we hear are not from on high, they are ours. And this is the story of one time when we were singing.