"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7)
I read Luke chapter two for my "Bible devotional reading" early this morning. Yes, it's that familiar passage that Linus reads in the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special. It's very familiar, but if you stop and think about it (and "chew" on it as my friend the late retired Framingham State Professor Rachel Bangs used to say), it's amazing what insights and reflections that will stir up. As I read the above verse today, I wondered if Joseph felt really lousy about the fact that there was no room in the inn for Mary and newborn Jesus. I wondered if he felt especially lousy that Jesus was laid in a manger (an animal feeding trough) and that they were out in essentially a barn with a bunch of [dirty] animals. You know, the Jewish religion and culture was really into everything being "clean" or kosher. I guess that whole situation wasn't too kosher. I know from personal experience that when you're told you have to "man up" and take charge and really make a situation good and healthy and right for your family, and then for some reason you can't do it, it feels horrible! A line my dear friend Gene Sorbo often uses is, "It's not something I would have signed up for." I'm sure the circumstances and experience of Jesus' birth were not what Joseph would ever have pictured or desired or "signed up for". Yet, today, we romanticize it and we love to hear Linus' voice read that passage! Today, we understand that as "crazy" as it may have seemed, it really was God's plan. God was in that first Christmas [although it probably happened in June and not December]!
The family I grew up in was not rich. I know my father made a very modest salary as a Boston Police officer and later as a Registry of Motor Vehicles officer (like the Highway Patrol in many states). As I look back, I'm amazed at the great Christmasses my parents provided when we were very little. In my childhood, Christmas was an absolutely magical and special time. My parents were also each pretty serious Roman Catholics (especially my mother) and I remember each Christmas Day starting with attending an early mass at St. John's Church.
Thirty-nine years ago today, I got quite a reality slap. I do remember that throughout my growing up years, my father would give us little lectures that we should be grateful for what we have because many people are in poverty and do not have nice Christmasses. Today, as a sixty-year-old who spent a number of years as a Protestant pastor, I know that there's a lot of sadness and pain that people experience during the holidays. The worst part is, that sometimes, people are victims- they suffer at Christmas thorough no fault of their own- much as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a sense were "victims" of the culture of their day that left them in that smelly, dirty stable following Jesus' birth. On both Christmas and Thanksgiving we always had my grandmother (my mother's mother) and her sister Celia as our dinner guests. Mom's parents married late and had kids late (her dad passed in 1960) so I had an "old" grandmother even as a little kid. In 1975, my grandmother lived in the elderly housing complex at Hagan Court [near Cobb's Corner] in our hometown of Canton, Massachusetts. Her sister Celia lived near the heart of downtown Boston but would take public transportation to Canton and spend a few days with her older sibling during holiday times. (We also used to get a kick out of the fact that my very confident and masculine father used to get nervous when they were over for dinner. He'd humbly ask me, "Would you pass Mrs. Richard's plate?" I was always just about to crack up laughing!) In '75, my father took my sister Dianne to go up to Hagan Court and get the two old ladies. They seemed to be gone forever on that errand! I remember that my mother (who was highly prone to depression) was getting more and more agitated. The turkey was in the oven for a long time and was just not getting done. And, Gene and Dianne and the old ladies were just not arriving.
"Oh, why isn't this turkey getting done?!" and "Oh, where are they, why don't they get here?!" were recited by her over and over and over. Each time, they sounded even more negative. It just was not a good atmosphere for Christmas!
Suddenly, I heard a far worse lament out of my mother's mouth: "Oh, here's a police car, something's happened!"
Indeed, it was a Canton Police car. Out of that car stepped my father and Dianne and no old ladies. My father came into the house and tried to reassure my mother, but it was pretty much a lost cause. In fact, there had been a car accident, and my father and the car's other occupants were the victims. A drunk driver had plowed right into their old Dodge Dart in downtown Canton! My grandmother was shaken up, and Celia was injured. The old women had been taken to the Norwood Hospital by ambulance. Honestly, I'm not sure what my mother did with the turkey at that point. I guess she turned the oven off! We all hopped into another of our cars and headed to the Norwood Hospital. I remember spending at least an hour sitting in the emergency room. The most common patients that I saw in that e.r. were children who had been injured playing with their toys or children who had been injured somehow in the home as they celebrated Christmas. That e.r. was a very busy and stressful place! Celia's face had slammed into a metal ashtray which had a sharp edge. (This was in a 1963 model car built before anybody cared about safety!) She came out with a "decent sized" bandage on it. This left a slight but permanent scar and she did collect some insurance money for her injury. My grandmother was not injured but was very shaken up. It's ironic that a drunk plowed into my father's car! At that time, he was a Supervisor at the Registry of Motor Vehicles' old 100 Nashua Street headquarters. If you're a drunk, you don't want to hit that guy's car!
Eventually, we all got home, and managed to have a dinner, and open presents. We all knew it could have been so much worse. Someone could have been killed or seriously injured had [for instance] the drunk's car been going faster. Yeah, that was my first "really different" Christmas. I think I surprised a friend recently by telling him that at least half of the Christmasses in my adult life have been somewhat difficult ones. In many years, there was enormous financial stress. In the late nineties there were my parents' serious illnesses. I remember visiting at their Canton home on Christmas Day 1998. My father was pretty senile at that point. My mother had cancer and was severely depressed. She verbally lamented how bad that Christmas was, and in fact it was a lot worse than even 1975, for instance. Those are tough memories. But, there are many good memories, too. In our final years in Framingham, Rachel [my youngest child] would always make pancakes for breakfast and we'd really have a great family time opening presents. Today, due to my car recently dying and having to work this morning at my secular job, some of you know I've been temporarily staying at my kids' apartment. My wife is preparing what will be a very late afternoon turkey dinner for us and Jon and Rachel are at the movies. But, you know what? As they say, "it's all good". If this were a "normal" Christmas, I would never be sitting here at 1:45 p.m. E.S.T. writing a blog post!
Chevy Chase [or is it Clark Griswold?] learned it in that famous Christmas movie of his, didn't he?! He wanted the "perfect" Christmas. He did not imagine the sewer blowing up, or the jelly of the month club, or the dog and the squirrel tearing his house apart. But in the midst of it, he learned some things. And, I learned some things and I continue to learn some things at Christmas, as Joseph did all the way back there in 4 B.C.! Good and bad things happen for a reason, but God is there.
Them's some thoughts at Christmas 2014- Merry Christmas!