Not long ago, two young children helped me see the Nativity of Jesus in a new way. Their presence in my life made the Christmas story an entirely new experience.
When I first started meditating on the Nativity passages as a Jesuit novice, more than 20 years ago, my prayer and reading focused largely on the theological import of the event. Happily, I have a pretty vivid imagination, so it was easy to imagine the birth scene "just as if I were there," as St. Ignatius Loyola suggests in his classic manual for prayer, The Spiritual Exercises.
In my mind's eye, I could see the inky night, the crude shelter, the sleepy-eyed cows, the exhausted parents and the squalling baby. Of course it probably didn't happen precisely the way that most Christmas cards portray, but overall, it was easy for me to feel amazed by the Incarnation, when God chose to "pitch his tent" among us, as some translations of the Gospel of John have it (1:14).
The notion of God becoming one of us, completely taking on our physical nature, sharing in the common aches and pains of humanity, "pitching his tent" among us, as John's Gospel says, was wonderfully appealing to me. It reminded me that for Christians, God is not something that is far off or entirely impossible to comprehend; God became human so that we could better understand a transcendent reality. Nor do we have a God who cannot understand what it means to live a human life. Christians do not worship a Platonic God, but a human one. All this made a deep impression on me.
But until the birth of my first nephew, my sister's child, I never appreciated how a newborn child can change everything.
When my nephew was born 12 years ago, I was astonished by the way our entire family immediately shifted its focus. Our hearts were now centered on a little child. What did he do yesterday? What is he doing today? What will he do tomorrow? Who will he become?
How miraculous that God had created a brand-new person, someone we could never have imagined, but who would change our lives nonetheless. The same happened with my sister's second child, born five years ago, who is a gift in equal measure, but so different from the first. God had created -- with the help of my sister and brother-in-law, of course -- something new.
Nor had I appreciated the accompanying worry, and sometimes fear, that goes along with childrearing. (Still, I don't fully, and will never fully, understand it, since I'm not a parent.) When I think about my nephews, I pray that nothing bad will happen to them, hope that they will be physically well and desire that they will always be happy. But I know that at some point the world will be painful for them.
Most likely it was similar for Mary and Joseph as they pondered the future of their baby. While Luke's Gospel offers a brief sketch of how Mary discovered God's plan for her (2:26-38), we have little idea of her innermost thoughts attending the birth of her son. She sings a song of joy to her cousin Elizabeth, but as the New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., says about the Annunciation, the time when she discovered that she was with child: "What really happened? We shall never know."
We have even less insight into Joseph's heart; Mary's husband is completely silent in Scripture, given no words to speak.
But we can assume that Mary and Joseph may have gathered from a variety of sources -- the angelic messages, the dreams, the unique birth of their son, the strange utterances of Simeon and Anna (two elderly, pious Jews who commented on the birth of their son) -- that their baby's life likely would be a strange one, filled with unusual joys and sorrows. And so they protected him as best they could, first sheltering him from the elements and later, in Egypt, from Herod's murderous wrath.
But did they know, even then, that they would not be able to protect him forever?
All Christians are called to emulate both Mary and Joseph. We are invited to listen carefully to God, to respond with a trusting yes (often, like Mary, after some questioning) and, finally, to bring Christ into the world -- not in his flesh and not in precisely the same way that Mary did, but in our lives and in other ways important today.
And we are called to nurture our faith, which can be as precious and fragile and delicate as a newborn child. This does not mean that we jealously guard our faith from the world, as if the world were antithetical to faith, but that we understand that our faith and our vocations need to be nourished, cared for and revered as gifts from God.
These are calls for every Christian, no matter who we are, or where we come from. In the Christmas Vigil Mass, the main reading is from the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, which details the ancient genealogy of Jesus' family. That seemingly interminable list ("Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse...") shows that the Messiah came from a long line of people who were not perfect.
Within his family, by the way, are quite a few unsavory characters. (You think your family is dysfunctional? Read Matthew.) But out of that holy but entirely human tree grew a fresh green shoot that would change everything.
How overwhelming the first Christmas must have been for Mary and Joseph. Few things can provoke such intense worry as a newborn child. Ask any parent. But few things promise such unreasonable hope, such unexpected change and such unbounded joy.
May your heart be newborn this Christmas season.
James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints.