He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.

~ St. Athanasius the Great, On the Incarnation, 2.8

Christ is born! Let us glorify him!

Today is Christmas. What a weird event.

I’m not talking about all the shopping and whatnot. That, of course, can be overdone. We actually opened our presents with the kids Christmas Eve this year. This was mainly for practical reasons – we’ll be at church and then my mom’s all day today – but I think it might also help to take some of the focus of the day away from all the stuff, however wonderful it is to give and receive gifts.

No, I’m talking about the birth of Jesus Christ, which we commemorate today.

I’m not, by far, the first to note the many paradoxes of the event. And St. Athanasius, quoted above, would be quick to point out how fitting all of it was for our salvation. Rightly so. But still – it should still strike us as bizarre.

Of course, to many people it is literally unbelievable. A Virgin giving birth? Really?

I won’t try to defend it – the archangel Gabriel even resorts to what toady would be thought a very bad argument when explaining it all to Mary: “with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Suuuuure. Pull the ol’ omnipotence card. You won’t make captain of the angel debate team if that’s all you’ve got, Gabriel.

That said, there are good reasons to believe it. But since I already happen to do so, I’ll focus rather on the good of believing it.

Think, for a minute, about what this meant in context. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, who was known to be a righteous man. But before they get married, she’s found to be pregnant, yet she claims she’s still a virgin – it was a miracle! Understandably skeptical, Joseph at least knows it wasn’t him, so he decides to bail. But since he actually is a righteous man, he plans to keep everything on the down low so as not to bring Mary to public shame (or worse).

Then an angel appears to him. We aren’t told which angel, but for the sake of continuity let’s presume it’s probably Gabriel again. Gabriel says, “Look, Joe, this actually is a total miracle. It’s sort of a big deal. So here’s what you’re going to do: Stick with Mary, and name the kid Jesus.” (“Jesus” is the Greek version of Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.”)

Again, Joseph is a righteous man, so who is he to question a messenger from God? Gabriel could have tried to appeal to his self-interest by tipping him off that from then until the end of time children across the world would reenact this whole thing, and he’d get third billing every year (second, if the baby is a doll!). But Gabriel doesn’t need to tempt Joseph with the glory of being immortalized through shoddily planned and executed children’s plays. He just tells him, “You can trust her. You don’t need to be afraid of her.” And that’s all he needs to hear.

So moral #1: Next time you meet a young woman pregnant out of wedlock, before jumping to conclusions, consider that at least once there was something bigger going on.

And, indeed, it was so much bigger!

Ancient people thought of the gods as fickle and sometimes even wrathful beings. While there may be traces of that in the Old Testament, even in the midst of all the ceremony and harsh laws there is a God who first of all loved a people – a bunch of frustrating misfits, it turns out – and through them promised to save the world.

So when, out of his immeasurable goodness and love, he decides, as St. Athanasius put it, to prepare a “body in this virgin as a temple for himself,” or as St. John put it, when he “tabernacled in us” (John 1:14), ancient people would not have expected anything that happened next.

Presumably, whatever good reputation his Mother and her Betrothed had was ruined by the out-of-wedlock pregnancy. When they show up to Bethlehem, St. Luke (2:7) says there was no room, “in the house” (en to katalymati). I’ve heard it claimed that this meant the family house of Joseph – not an inn, as it is often translated. I’m not sure I buy that, but let’s go with it today. Now, it could be that they were just really late arriving for the census, but it also seems reasonable to speculate that, if this claim is true, there was no room in the house sort of like every seat was taken on that bus for Forest Gump on the first day of school.

So they end up in a stable. Since Bethlehem is in Judea, not Germany, that means a cave, not a cutesy wooden structure. And the Virgin gives birth there, and God sends out invitations to come celebrate.

Oh yeah, to the kings? Nope. We’re not even sure they were kings, though they were likely wealthy to be educated enough to study astrology. That’s beside the point, though, because they weren’t invited. Those guys just showed up late and crashed the party.

Protip/moral #2: If you’re going to crash a party, bring cool gifts like myrrh.

No, God sent invitations to shepherds, the blue collar workers of the ancient world. They may have been looking to the stars, but they weren’t studying them. They were just enjoying them. And here come the heavenly hosts.

“Hosts” was once a good translation, but it isn’t anymore. The Greek word is stratia, which means “armies.” So imagine the celestial air force just appearing out of nowhere, armed to the immaterial teeth, over these poor factory workers, probably just on their smoke break. This is why angels always have to begin every conversation with humans with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

The Jewish people had been hoping for a Messiah, and many thought that he would save them from the Romans and finally, in his wrath, punish them for occupying Judaea. Now, here, over the Galilean skies, appear heavenly battalions. Must be D-Day, right?

Not exactly.

Said the angels’ spokesman (spokesangel?):

I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)

“Good tidings”? Awesome. “A Savior”? Great, just what we’ve been hoping for. “Lying in a manger”? What?

Also, why are you telling us?

Moral #3: Don’t get down on yourself. You are far more important to God than you probably realize.

Who does God invite to his birthday party? Not kings. Not priests. Not rabbis. Not scholars. Not the rich and famous. Not mystics. There were plenty of all of them around. He could have invited any of them. But who does he invite? Normal people.

Now, on the off chance any kings happen to be reading this, I don’t mean to imply that God doesn’t care about the fortunate. It’s just that, well, they already have their fortunes to remind them of that. Their duty is to be thankful and pay it forward and whatnot. And many of them are actually quite good at that.

But these shepherds, they may never have set foot in a palace, yet God invites them to his new temple! (Note: The Hebrew word for palace and temple is the same.) They likely didn’t have any gifts to bring, but they are welcomed first (at least among humans – there were plenty of animals there already). I can imagine them – because to some degree I am also this sort of person – being so uncultured as to be completely unintimidated by what would otherwise be a really awkward and daunting situation.

I can picture the interrogation:

Joseph: So who’re you and what do you want?

Shepherds: We’re just shepherds, man. Congrats on the baby! Hey, is that baklava? Do you mind?

Joseph: Um … sure. Go right ahead. So, how’d you hear about us again?

Shepherds: We were on our smoke break when this shiny dude named Gabe or something appeared up in the sky and told us to come check it out.

Joseph: Welp, can’t argue with that, I guess. Just out of curiosity … what were you smoking?

Kidding aside, the point is that they were ordinary, everyday sort of people, but that didn’t close them off to the presence of the Hope that transcends all the despair of this broken world.

If I have any readers left, they may have noticed that I haven’t written in a while – not since my father died. This may be due to that, of course, but it is at least as much due to everyday things. I’m a father myself. I have a five year-old, Brendan, and a nine month-old, Aidan, and the latter spends a lot of time sleeping on top of me as I sit in my armchair. This usually means that I have only one free arm, sometimes for hours, in the evenings. Then, when I do have the time to write, I’m often just too tired or distracted with other hobbies. In other words, my life is plagued with normalcy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Fasting for Advent has been a challenge. Aidan is sensitive to dairy and gluten and allergic to either cashews or chick peas. This means my wife Kelly can’t have most of those either, since he’s still nursing, and she’s developed her own sensitivities as well. So meat and potatoes is one of the only dishes everyone can eat. So we eat that. Maybe we could have had more fish, but taking away cheese from a woman who grew up in Minnesota just across border from Wisconsin should really be enough of a sacrifice. And for normal people like us, at this point in our lives, it is.

I’ve spent more time with family and friends. I caught up on the work I missed (and now, on vacation, I’ll have to catch up again). I still pray. I still fast. I still practice watchfulness. Some days are better than others. I visit my father’s resting place about once a week and say prayers there for him and for me. I’d be surprised to get a divine birthday party invitation too.

Christmas is a reminder of what, I can thankfully say, is a present reality for me every day: God is with us. Even us. Even here. Even now. Every day.

The “Mighty One, the Artificer of all,” for whom “nothing will be impossible,” became a newborn baby, one of the most helpless creatures in the universe, for us. He doesn’t care that we don’t have anything to offer him. He doesn’t care that we don’t get how amazing just being present with him is. He’s saving us anyway. Glory to God.

Christ is born! Let us glorify him!

And merry Christmas.

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