In his homily at Santa Marta last week, Pope Francis insisted that Advent demands three attitudes: purification of memory, commitment to radical hope and vigilance for the future. Not without a hint of irony, he observed that “Christmas is not about the birth of a tree, but about the birth of the Saviour”. Salvation is the radical Christian hope, but that demands we remain vigilant as we wait for the fulfillment of time.
Still, it’s that startling – and ludicrous – image of the ‘birth of a tree’ that stayed with me. Hasn’t the ‘tree’ become the symbol par excellence of the holiday season? Aren’t we caught up in a whirlwind of exuberance that, like contagion, spreads from that peculiar tradition of ‘dressing up’ a tree, of giving it homage as the totem for our coming together, for our gift exchange, for the joy ‘of Christmas’?
Christmas is about a birth, and the joy, the offering of gifts and coming together are to celebrate new life. But while this birth is of no ordinary child, nor is the life promised in any way conventional. Every child born (rather than a tree!) is a source of infinite joy, even while there’s also something disconcerting about the child’s demands on us. This is perhaps the purification of memory that is so necessary with every Advent, with every waiting for a new birth.
For as a child is born, so are a mother and a father. Jesus’s birth happens despite all the odds. But precisely because of its extraordinary circumstances, it serves to remind of how the birth of those who care for the next generation is no easy matter. It demands radical commitment and a willingness to adapt no matter the hardship.
This is perhaps the purification of memory that is so necessary with every Advent
A child herself, Mary is pregnant under the most dubious of circumstances. Her betrothed, Joseph, knows full well that her child is not his. But against societal expectations, even against his every ‘instinct’, he still recognises her as his legal responsibility and claims the unborn child of another as his own. He even takes his new family to be enrolled in the city of his ancestors.
Joseph was a man willing to sacrifice everything – and most crucially, his honour – to fulfil what he believes is his destiny as father of the Messiah. How many of us can claim such radical commitment to what, for all intents and purposes, is a preposterous belief?
Just as Abraham dared to trust to the point of sacrificing his son, so Joseph dared to be the unsung hero of the greatest story ever told. For, in an astounding reversal of cultural mores, it is Mary who is forever honoured as Mother of God, even while she also risks everything with her child-like “yes”.
Travelling in atrocious conditions while heavy with child, she labours alone in a foreign town. There is no midwife to assist her; only the man who bound himself to her against all expectations. The miracle of birth is such because of the new parents’ extraordinary resilience.
Nor does the difficult journey to parenthood end with a birth under complex circumstances. The new family finds no peace. Nothing is ordinary or particularly pleasant about their life. It is no great honour to be visited by shepherds whose lives were no less tough than those of the beasts they tended. We love to create idyllic cribs just as we decorate trees with lavishness. But there’s nothing particularly idyllic about the smell of sheep, the exhaustion of tending to a new child, or the fear that drives to exile.
The child born might be a promised king. But there’s nothing majestic about being marked for death a few months after one’s birth. Nor is there anything ‘royal’ about the treacherous journey of the migrant seeking refuge not only in a foreign land, but in that very land where one’s ancestors were held in slavery.
But thus begins the family life that the Church elevates for our celebration at Christmastime. All that the world considered to be wounded and broken is blessed beyond measure to be pondered for all time. The story of a child born becomes indeed the source of our greatest hope that keeps us vigilant for the long haul in our vale of tears. Merry Christmas!
Nadine Delicata is a moral theologian andlecturer at the University of Malta’s Faculty of Theology.
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