During these twelve days of Christmas, while Christians put decorations away, vacuum up the tinsel, and find places to put our new toys, I often wonder what it all means. After the pregnant longing, after the birth, how do we understand that God is with us?
Finding out that I was pregnant was one of the scariest experiences I've ever had. I wanted a child. My husband and I had been married for seven years, and we were getting so much heat from our parents and siblings that it was starting to make any sort of family gathering unbearable. The pressure was internal as well. My body was literally aching for a baby. After those years, I understand why women have children even when it doesn't make any sense.
Yet, when we did find out that I was pregnant, I didn't have any angels visiting me. Instead, the glorious message was given unto me by a small plastic stick from the drugstore. Even with that yearning, when I looked down and saw two lines appearing, when I watched the negative sign turn into a plus sign, I cried and cried. Reality hit me. The knowledge that I would be responsible, full-time, for another human life was truly overwhelming. All of these fears crept up: the concern that I would lose the baby; the worry that I would not be able to care for another human being the way she needed me; the terror that I would psychologically damage her in some way; the anxiety that I would lose all my love, energy, and passion for my career; the concern that I would not be able to juggle it all. This angst that I was inviting our child into the loving, tangled, human messiness of our family suddenly gripped me. I've never felt so inadequate.
Of course, when I announced to my friends and family that I was going to have a child, I pressed the fear down into a small compartment of my gut, and showed only over-achieving elation. I would make my own organic baby food. I would use cloth diapers. I would be creating a scrapbook page for every precious moment of my child's existence. I pretended so well that it's hard to conjure up the fear in my memories, but it's still there.
It's no wonder that Mary's messenger and Joseph's dream began with the words, "Do not fear." Even aside from the fact that Mary was an unmarried teenaged mom, pregnant with a baby with questionable parentage, I think a lot of us could have used a messenger like that one when we found out that we were going to be bringing a child into the world. The dangers, the brokenness, the inadequacies, the frailty of human life become palpable at that moment. Sometimes I wonder if I spent those first several months throwing up because of the hormones, or because of my own anxiety.
Yet, it's in this anxious, fearful, elated way that we know that God is with us. "They shall name him Emmanuel," the prophets foretold. For some reason, I always thought that the prophets were instructing Joseph and Mary. As if they were on some "Baby Names" site, scrolling through the suggestions, and saying, "Here! This is a good one. Emmanuel. You should call him Emmanuel, which means God with us. That's a great name for this baby." But it doesn't say that, exactly. It says "they" will name him Emmanuel. Which has a different meaning.
They will call him God with us.
They will be seeing this man, and they will know what God is like, because human history and divine history will collide. They will know how they ought to live, because they will hear the words that come out of his mouth, instructing us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. They will know how they should treat one another, because they will see the dignity that he will give to those who are broken and outcast. They will know to seek wholeness and peace, because they will see how he healed those who suffered. They will know to welcome the strangers and outsider in their midst, because he will tell them how to treat the Samaritan. They will know that they should feed one another, because he will feed the crowds. They will know that they just might be despised and rejected, because he will be surrounded by angry mobs that will demand his death. They will know that they just might be betrayed by those they love, because of that kiss in the garden.
They will look at Jesus and know that God is with us. God took on human flesh and dwelt among us. God became a part of this messy, fearful world, with all of its hormones and inadequacies and frailties. They will know that God is with us, even as they see that small baby in a manger, as they watch how his unorganized movements keep him swatting at things in the air.
As Christians mark these twelve days of Christmas, as the wrapping paper is recycled, and the ornaments find their place in their boxes, as our holiday splurging becomes replaced with New Year's diets, we reflect on how God is with us. Through that life, we know that God is with us, even in the tangled, human messiness of our own well-intentioned love.
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