Culture

‘He Himself Carried the Fire’

Detail of The Adoration of the Shepherds by Sebastian Conca, 1720 (Image via Getty Open Content Program)
A Christmastime reflection

It was impossible. Mary may have lived in a time before science, before the polite and clinical agents of reason had scrubbed the angels and demons and desert spirits away from all but the dark outer edges of our minds, but she was a woman — she knew where babies came from and how they got made. She knew that she was a virgin and that she had not become a wife to the man to whom she was engaged. She also knew what being pregnant and unmarried was likely to mean to her — socially, religiously, economically, physically — in first-century Palestine.

She’d probably witnessed her share of stonings.

Religious people sometimes get a pat on the head from their non-believing friends, who say things like, “All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.” But why would Mary have wished to believe it when the angel Gabriel visited her with that joyous and terrible announcement — “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus; He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” — when it would have been so much more comforting to believe that she’d simply had a strange dream? “Mary was greatly troubled at his words,” Luke’s gospel says.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. Easy for you to say, Gabriel.

Joseph at first took a more conventional understanding of his situation. Because he “was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (The quiet divorce is something that many of us have looked to as a solution to our domestic tribulations.) Another angel, another command attached to an inconceivable promise: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”

There had been signs. Maybe that helped. Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, had just conceived a child in spite of her advanced age. Still, it must have been a lot to take, and the unlikely claims kept piling up. When Mary met Elizabeth, Elizabeth had more astounding news: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” They’d wanted to call him “Zachariah” after his father, but his name was “John” and that was that. The angels were always very specific about names. The encounter between Elizabeth and Mary happened at Hebron, the place where Abram’s name had been changed to Abraham.

Like Elizabeth, Abraham’s wife became pregnant in her later years. Like Mary, Abraham received three holy visitors who brought to him news about his son. But Mary’s story was in some way’s Abraham’s inverted: Abraham provided gifts for his visitors, whereas Mary received them on her Son’s behalf. Those gifts were heavy with symbolism: gold for the child who was hailed as a king, frankincense in honor of his priestly mission, and myrrh, which was used in funereal preparations. That last must have startled Mary, who knew the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, willingly offered up as a human sacrifice at the demand of a God with a sense of justice that at times seems radically at odds with our own. Even now, that story commands our attention, and we still sing songs about it: “You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore.”

(“All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.”)

The news continued coming in from all sides. The magi, journeying from the east, asking: “Where is the Child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage.” The shepherds, having heard strange tales of a newborn king, found their way to Bethlehem and “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” Naturally, the lords of this world understood that their position was threatened: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.”

Which is to say: Herod, believed, too. He was an early believer, in his way. Pontius Pilate, too: “What I have written, I have written.”

But step away for a moment from the manger scene at the Christmas pageant, which surely does not smell like a real barn smells, and dwell for a moment in the world of real people: the terrified young woman, her uncertain husband-to-be, the worried politician, the simple shepherds and great holy men alike wondering in the backs of their minds if they were maybe kidding themselves, if they might possibly have it all wrong, if they’d misunderstood something along the way. “Be not afraid.” Maybe they could endure the terror of the night and the cold, the rigors and dangers of travel, even the threat of Herod’s sword — but what of that other fear, the fear that they’d made a mistake, that this was all a bizarre misunderstanding or the work of credulous fanatics? A manger is a feed-trough for livestock. “Feed my sheep,” He would later say, to confused and fearful people still not quite getting the point.

“Well, they had faith,” we tell ourselves. “They believed.” As though these little words put together in that order would be enough to exorcise doubt, terror, and the unbearable loneliness at the heart of this story. (“All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.”) Try to imagine the physical facts of birth in that setting, the rigors of the long road to Bethlehem and the long road home.

The gold, frankincense, and myrrh all come together—there’s no picking and choosing among them.

“Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” She must have, and even as her mind turned to a thousand other things related to the difficulties of staying alive in the savage time during which she lived, the impossibility of it all must have weighed on her and on her humble little family with the strange precocious boy who did not have any obviously kingly attributes. She must have thought about Elizabeth and her odd son, John, and about Hebron, and about Abraham: “He himself carried the fire and the knife.” I imagine Mary and Joseph, catching one another’s eyes across the room, and remaining resolutely silent. They “pondered these things in their hearts,” which is another way of saying: “Let’s not talk about it.” Isaac was spared at the last second. But this story does not end that way. The manger has to be full because the grave has to be empty. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh all come together — there’s no picking and choosing among them.

Some things are easy to believe: Children love presents and Christmas trees, fresh snow is beautiful, and it is wonderful to sing carols and to be with our families. It is better to be warm inside than out in the cold, but the promise of a kindly fire imparts a certain charm to the winter weather. It is better to be fed than to be hungry, even if the turkey doesn’t turn out well. It is better to have a home full of misbehaving children than a silent house. Those things are easy to believe.

Some things are hard to believe. (And harder to know.) “All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.”

I wonder if that’s really true.

Isaac wonders, too.

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