Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas 2018: Light Comes to a Dark World

And Joseph saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to him: where are you going? And he said: I am seeking a Hebrew midwife. And she answered: Are you of Israel? And he said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And he said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said: Is she not your wife? And he said: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit. And the midwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him.   
And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things, because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight.

That passage comes from the Protoevangelium of James, a text that dates to around the middle of the second century. It provides us with the details, previously unrecorded, of the conception, birth, and childhood of Mary. The text shows us a young girl who was special and holy from her youngest days, taking food from angels and spending her days in prayer. Knowing there was something special about her, her parents, Anne and Joachim, decided to have her raised in the temple. But when she came of age and her parents were gone, she needed to be placed in the care of a male guardian. The man chosen was Joseph, who in this telling is an old man, a widower with children from his previous marriage. He's embarrassed at first to be taking in such a young girl, but he does his duty to the temple and proves to be a good provider, even when his faith and trust are shaken by word of Mary's pregnancy.

The difference we find in this telling of the Nativity is that Joseph goes off to find a midwife. Salome, however, does little more than witness the miraculous birth taking place in front of her, as a cloud of light surrounded the birthplace.

The light, of course, represents the light that Mary's newborn son has brought into the world.

Carl Heinrich Bloch, The Birth of Jesus
Nearby shepherds would come to see and adore that night. But there would be no wise men. Not yet. Their presence at the stable is a conflation of the two Gospel accounts of the Nativity. Luke never mentions them, but Matthew only mentions that they followed the star to a house where the family was staying. Shortly afterward, Joseph is told in a dream to flee to Egypt, as Herod now knows he has a rival king to contend with and orders the murder of all boys in Bethlehem under age 2.

And with that begins the story of the Holy Family. A miraculous pregnancy, followed by an unlikely birthplace for a king, after which they become refugees -- a story that sounds all too familiar in our world. When we see families and their children fleeing for their lives for safer havens, may we always see Christ in their faces and their struggles. May we soften our hearts and see him in all who are in need, all who are cast out, all who are forgotten.

As love is born anew into the world today, may we ourselves strive to birth the love of Christ into a world that needs it, perhaps more than ever. For Salome is not the Christ child's only midwife. We all are, as St. John of the Cross reminds us:

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the Holy and say,
“I need shelter for the night.
Please take me inside your heart; my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yes, there, under the dome of your being,
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim,
the sacred womb of your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help:
for each of us is His beloved servant never far.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the street,
pregnant with Light, and sing!

Merry Christmas to one and all!

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