There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
- G.K. Chesterton, The House of Christmas
I think it’s fair to say that there is no other day that brings as much anticipation as Christmas Eve.
As a child, it’s so hard to sleep. You just want it to be Christmas morning — preferably while it’s still dark so the tree looks magical as the lights cast a glow on the presents that weren’t there when you went to bed. You can’t wait to open them, but you don’t want to spoil the beauty and the surprise yet either. When I was little, I would just sit there in front of the tree and take it all in. It was a magical time full of mystery and excitement.
As a parent, you’re running full-tilt getting everything ready. You’re not only wrapping gifts until the wee hours of the morning, you’re making sure you’ve got everything you need from the store because it’s not going to be open on Christmas day (and thank goodness for that!) You’re thinking of the guests who will be arriving for dinner (or the trip you’ll be making to the in-laws) the cleanliness of your home, and the hope of getting enough sleep that you won’t be in too much of a zombie stupor to remove 37,000 twist-ties from the toys you got your little ones.
As a priest, you’re preparing the parish, making sure the choir is ready and the decorations are complete, hearing last minute confessions, bracing yourself for a gauntlet of beautiful (but often long and exhausting) liturgies.
Everyone is busy. Everyone is waiting. Everyone is excited.
Right now, my wife is wrapping presents. My kids will should be taking a nap (they’re not) because we’re heading out to Midnight Mass in two hours. The house is busy, everyone doing something, all in anticipation of Christmas.
But tonight I am also thinking of the anticipation of Joseph and Mary. The anticipation of arriving late into a city that was not their own, Mary deep in the pains of labor, searching for a decent place to stay before the baby came and not finding one. The fear, the discomfort, the anxiety, the urgency.
This is the anticipation under which Christ entered the world. It is an anticipation that known by those who have experienced it as truly a moment of faith, when trust in God is the only choice, because nothing else can be done.
Anyone who has ever had a Christmas where they were struggling financially knows this feeling. I’ve had my share. One particularly bad year, we couldn’t even get a tree or presents. The only gifts we had to give to our daughter were given to me by my boss and his girlfriend, who knew how little we had and how slow business had been. We stacked those gifts on a bookshelf and made the best of it. We had almost nothing, but we trusted in God. It wasn’t long before life changed for the better.
I can’t say I’ve always been great about trust. I can’t help but wonder what poor St. Joseph must have been thinking, his wife carrying a miracle child who was of his house but not flesh of his flesh. He was leading them on a trip he no doubt would have preferred to avoid with her so far into the pregnancy, and at the command of a government that wanted to tax him. And he was not a wealthy man to begin with. Next thing he knows, he’s in this city trying to find a place to stay with no luck, and not much money, and Mary is ready to give birth, something which he probably was experiencing for the very first time, which would have been nerve-wracking enough if he had been at home.
I know he’s a saint. One of the greatest. But if I were in his sandals, I would have been freaking out.
But he trusted. They trusted. And they found the manger. And the Creator of the World, God’s Logos, was born into the lowliest of places, divinity made flesh. It boggles the mind.
Yes, we can easily get too caught up with the commercialism of Christmas, with the planning and the feasting and the decorations and all of it. But to my mind, all the anticipation is a good thing. We are excited because deep down, we know that Christmas is special. Because there is no other holiday like it.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)