Culture

‘This Thing Which Is Come to Pass’

Detail of Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerhard von Honthorst (1622)
A strange little family, and an even stranger one

Real life doesn’t unfold in scenes, but here are a few scenes that stand out in my mind nonetheless.

Scene one: There is a bar, favored by off-duty police and breakfast drunks, that opens around 7 a.m. In the same run-down commercial strip is a storefront community center that hosts a meeting of the local Alcoholics Anonymous group. There are sometimes people gathered out front waiting for one or the other to open up for the day, and one cannot help but imagine that there are at least a few souls out front who haven’t decided which door they will walk through.

Scene two: Some years earlier, an American newspaper reporter visits Calcutta and imposes himself on the Missionaries of Charity, hoping to catch a whiff of whatever spiritual stuff is behind Mother Teresa’s gang and its work. But instead of demi-angels blissed out on agape, he sees mainly women who are stern, stoical, even grim-faced — not necessarily pleasant at all — and the word that comes to mind isn’t anything from the Christian tradition but karma, the most literal translation of which is “work.” There is a kind of high seriousness evident, but not the kind that smells of incense: “Here is a very hard and thankless job,” they almost say. “And it falls to us to do it. Why? We can explain it to you, but we cannot understand it for you.”

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Scene three: He was adopted — it is important to keep that in mind. Even if we approach the story with narrowed 21st-century eyes, the outline is familiar enough: The father knows that in the strictest biological terms, this is not his son, but he has determined to care for him nonetheless, to love him and to raise him as his own. He has his suspicions about the mother, too, and her incredible story, but he is setting those aside. The raising of children is a very hard and often thankless job, and, in this case, it falls to him to do it. Why? He could explain it to you, but he cannot understand it for you.

The father is not the only one who has adopted the boy in the barn. The three mysterious strangers are there, too. They are foreigners, wise men in some tellings, kings in others, but, whoever they are, the infant is not of their family, not of their tribe, not even of their nation. They bring gifts that are precious in and of themselves and heavy with meaning: gold, the traditional tribute to kings; incense, as befits a priest; and, most perplexing for a newborn, myrrh, which is used in the preparation of corpses and in other funereal rituals. Ordinary people come, too, repeating to the young parents what they themselves have been told by mysterious voices:

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

The mother, unmarried and having borne a child not fathered by her intended husband, must have expected abandonment rather than . . . all this. We are told she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” No doubt. Surely that is an understatement for the ages.

#share#The boy grows into a man, and the question of family is always at the center of His thinking. “Who is my mother, or my brethren?” He asks. “Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.” He tells of hated foreigners adopting the wounded and the vulnerable of His own nation as their own, and shames His own people with that story of alien kindness. One of His last acts before death is arranging an adoption, pointing His own mother out to a follower and saying: “Behold thy mother.”

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His followers are sometimes thick-headed (Peter’s last act in the company of the Prince of Peace is to start a knife fight), but they eventually get the message. The Architect of the universe has “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself.”

#related#None of this seems quite possible. None of it really is possible. We hear stories of His followers not only healing the sick but raising the dead. We ponder this in our hearts — skeptically. “How shall this be, seeing as . . . ?” But it is not for us to do the impossible. Not necessarily. The possible will do. We are not the mystical traveling wise men, only the shepherds. For us shepherds, the possible is enough. We decide which door to walk through on any given morning. We decide to take up such hard and thankless work as is given us. We see the sign in the child born into a world that had only known blood and tribe, and indifference and cruelty to all those beyond our own people — a world that had taken extra-lineal cruelty as a positive virtue — and we try to listen, to understand what that gold, frankincense, and myrrh all adds up to. We have questions: “And who is my neighbor?”

“Behold your mother. Behold your son.”

Behold. In hospices and soup kitchens, in mental wards and solitary confinement, in high places and in low places. In the cancer ward. In the labor camp. Among strangers and even among our enemies. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”

—  Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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