A couple years ago I was in a quite different Christmas procession. At my pervious church, we did a double procession, which means we walked down the aisle, then walked back up around the sides and back down again. I confess I never really understood the purpose. It was a logistical nightmare with the choir, 12 acolytes, 2 clergy, and at least 2 Eucharistic ministers. There was one Christmas where I was a bit out of sorts. I have no idea why, but I was standing back and then started talking to someone in the narthex. The next thing I knew, the procession was already on its second go around and the clergy portion had already passed. There was really no sneaky way to wiggle in, so I booked it down the side aisle and then squeezed through a pew practically leaping over a few very confused parishioners and then finally joining the procession. My boss looked at me like, “Oh there, you are!” I would like to tell you that was one of my most embarrassing moments, but I am not sure it makes the top 3.
It seems that almost every year, Christmas creeps on me. We are moving our way through Advent, slowly preparing for the coming of Christ and all of a sudden it’s the week before Christmas and two of the candles on my Advent wreath still have not been lit. In the church, we spend so much time trying to be countercultural…not decorating until after the final service on the 4th Sunday of Advent, not singing Christmas carols until Christmas itself, it seems as though in my attempt to not celebrate too soon, I almost miss Christmas itself. Next thing you know, people are putting their trees on the curbs because they have had them up since Thanksgiving, and here I am still wondering what happened to Christmas.
I wonder if it felt like that to Mary and Joseph, if the whole thing kind of took them by surprise. Just this past Sunday we heard about the angel appearing to Joseph telling him that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We know that Mary also had been visited by an angel. But that had been months before, 6 months at least. Now suddenly, they find themselves having to journey to Bethlehem so they can register for a census that they just learned about. I doubt this was the way either Mary or Joseph had imagined the birth of their first child.
After all, they deserved more than this. They had already been through so much. After their community discovered that Mary was pregnant out of wed lock, they were surely shunned by most of their friends and family and considered to be sinners. I would think they were eagerly anticipating the moment when this divine child would be born, with a halo propped right above his head so there would be no doubt from their family and friends that this was a child born of God and not their own recklessness.
But when that very important moment came, they did not find themselves surrounded by family and friends, the people who could assist them and care for them. No, they were in a stable far from home, surrounded by animals and a cold dark night. No this was not the way this was supposed to be at all. They were supposed to be in Nazareth, with a glowing child who was so clearly divine and no one would have reason to doubt….they would have no reason to doubt. Yet the child did not come out with a halo attached. He looked like every other newborn they had seen before. I imagine they gazed into the child’s eyes, trying to see the divine spark, the answer to the prayers that they had been so diligently praying.
Then they were interrupted by those dirty and strange shepherds babbling about angels, a host of angels, so vast that they could not count them. The shepherds were saying that this baby was the Messiah, the savior of all humanity. Could it be true? This was the very same thing that the angel had told both Mary and Joseph those many months before. Yet if this was true, why didn’t the host of angels come and sing to them? Wasn’t that the appropriate way to welcome the savior of all humanity? Instead they have shepherds who have left their flocks and wandered far away to the stable where they are staying. That does not sound like a very reliable group. Yet that is who they had. There are no wise men in Luke’s birth story…just shepherds and shepherds did not have good reputations.
Unfortunately we do not get to hear the reaction of Joseph and Mary to the shepherd’s proclamation. All we know is that all who heard were amazed…which is more accurately translated to mystified, confused or flabbergasted. This was not how it was supposed to be. This was not what their lives, as parents of the savior of humanity was supposed to look like. Was it? “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
After leaping into the procession after it was almost completely over I felt like a bit of a fool. I thought, this is Christmas Eve and I just messed up our double procession…and I am the priest. This is not how it is supposed to be. This is not how my life as a priest is supposed to look like. I’m supposed to be holy, calm and collected….not darting through pews, leaping over unsuspecting parishioners. After the service, a parishioner who was really only marginally involved and always seemed a bit on the margins approached me. He said, “That was sublime.” I looked at him confused. Was he talking about the music…the sermon…the double procession that I had fouled up? He responded, “That was one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a church service.” He was talking about my little escapade through the pews. Apparently, he was in the pew behind the one I had rushed through. At first I thought he was mocking me, and he kind of was. But he was also clearly happy to see such a bizarre snag in the service. My embarrassing moment was the highlight of the service for him. It wasn’t holy. It definitely wasn’t what it was supposed to be, but it was real.
We can never know what Mary pondered in her heart, but I would like to think that she was just taking it all in. Whenever something unfortunate happens, my mother always says, “Well it will make a good story one day.” I wonder if that was what Mary was pondering. Well this is not the way it was supposed to happen, but I bet it will make a good story one day, possibly the greatest story ever told! Sometimes we spend too much time preparing and not nearly enough time experiencing and living in the moment. The birth of Christ, the incarnation is about Christ being with us, in our midst. In our preparation for holiness, in our striving for beauty and synchronicity, let us never miss the God that comes in the mistakes, in the wrong turns, in confusion. Let us instead let go enough to be amazed in the moment. I wish you all an amazing Christmas.