One of the great treasures of our faith is a legacy of beautiful art which tries to both point us to the One who is infinitely beautiful – and to bring to life the characters and stories which make up salvation history. But like any still image, they only tell part of the story. The creche scene many of us keep in our homes at this time of year can’t possibly bring to us the smells and sounds of a typical barn: a place where animals eat, sleep, and do their business… but more than that, this first “family photo” of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus doesn’t convey the whole story.
From the moment the angel Gabriel greeted Mary it was clear that this event was meant to leave Mary and Joseph forever changed.
Mary’s pregnancy put unexpected pressure on their engagement. You can imagine Mary trying to explain how it is that she came to be pregnant to Joseph… and the way their friends and acquaintances would have responded to the news. The journey to Bethlehem would not have been easy for a woman ready to deliver – and Joseph would have felt even more helpless than most first-time fathers do, when he couldn’t find them a place to stay that first Christmas night. When they are forced to leave town to protect Jesus from Herod, this isn’t an ordinary move – but an experience more akin to today’s Syrian refugees who are forced to leave everything behind – home, possessions, relationships, and for Joseph, even his clientele. Their return to Nazareth would have been less rushed, but likely required him to re-establish his business clientele all over again. And the story we know of his childhood is capped on the day his parents left him in the temple – bringing about the experience of panic too familiar for many parents when they fear they may have lost the little life entrusted to them. It’s a horrible feeling.
And all of these experiences are not that much different than the experiences every parent goes through. Each and every time leading up to (and including) the coming birth of our fifth child in early February 2016… we’ve experienced a little bit of chaos. I’ve changed jobs, moved my family (twice), bought minivans (twice), renovated a kitchen and a basement, purchased various baby paraphernalia, and my wife left her career as a dental assistant… all in anticipation of the birth of these wonderful little people. These preparations are only the beginning of what’s to come as you learn to put the needs of a helpless infant ahead of your own: sleepless nights, illness, baby-proofing, and the like have occupied our lives for more than nine years now. From what every veteran parent has ever told me… these challenges evolve as the teenage years hit which should about match up with the moment this next child is starting to reach independence. The smiling family photos we share at this time of year don’t catch all the chaos that come with family life – not for the holy family, and not for our own families. But here Mary’s experience has something to offer us. In the midst of some of the most difficult moments of her young life, St. Luke writes that:
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” -Luke 2:18
“His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” -Luke 2:51
The chaos every parent accepts with the very privilege of becoming a parents is not meaningless… but blessed. Perhaps this was easier for Mary to understand because she knew her Son had been sent by God for a greater purpose – that every inconvenience, every suffering would somehow contribute to the redemption of all humankind. Because she’d given God permission to use her as His instrument for that very purpose (Luke 1:38), she had accepted that it may not be easy… but it would be worth it. And parenthood is the same truth. Changing jobs, moving, going without sleep, and every other worldly sacrifice we suffer through is done because this life has been entrusted to us by God for a greater purpose. We may not get the benefit of visits from angels, wise men, and prophets in the way Mary did – but from time to time we get a taste of what a gift a little life really is about. In the midst of everything else that comes with being a parent comes an opportunity to treasure not only the experience of parenthood – but the person to whom you are a parent – deeply in your heart.
Taking things a step further – the experience of caring for a child teaches us a little something about God, whom we address most often as “Father.” We pour love into small people who -for months can’t do much of anything but eat, sleep, and poop – and cry when they aren’t doing those three. For a brief stretch of time, they figure things out and respond to love with love (beginning most often with a simple smile) – and then the relationship can become a struggle. But God never stops loving us… and in learning to love little people (and later, their teenage and adult incarnations) – we learn a little about what God is really like.
As we celebrate Christmas this year and we see images of the Holy Family all around us… may we all be reminded that there is much more to the story than that photo can convey. But that so much more is a blessed chaos revealing to us love and devotion through difficult moments – revealing the mystery of a love that knows no limits.