A couple of weeks ago my friend Eli explained the difference between happiness and joy and helped me better understand the very mixed feelings I get at Christmas.
Happiness is event driven and joy is a feeling that exists in spite of everything external. Joy is an emotion that comes from anticipation or expectation.
Christmas, said Eli, is not a happy time for some people. There is illness and loss and families that are far way or separated by anger. Christmas is a time when all that we do not have in our lives becomes painfully evident.
It’s not a happy time for everyone, but out of all the frustration and ordinary day to day struggles, out of the awe and fear of the responsibilities there is the anticipation of a fulfilled promise… joy.
There’s a real and human side to Christmas and we shouldn’t lose sight of that because it only makes the miracle of the season that much more joyful. That’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote the following, several years ago.
Every year I try to think what it must have been like that night.
Some say it was cold, maybe so. Since the country of Israel is subtropical, it wouldn’t have been cold as we in the Midwest know cold, maybe in the 40’s or 50’s. But of course, cold is relative, so it probably did seem cold to them, that young couple on that ill-timed journey long ago.
More than likely the weather was damp, and rain had been falling most of the day. That’s typical winter weather around that time, around that place. When you are road weary and wet, 50° would be cold…bone-chilling cold.
And they surely would have been weary. Twenty-five miles doesn’t seem far in a car, but try walking it…or worse yet, riding on the back of a donkey with your own back aching from a nine month pregnancy.
Of course, they were tired, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Young and newly married, they must have been a little dazed by the turn their lives had taken.
We all know the story. When the betrothed, yet unmarried Mary learned she was to bear a Child of God, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant. She may have been seeking some solace or trying to put some distance between herself and her well-meaning but skeptical family. The Gospels tell us she stayed with Elizabeth for three months. One can only wonder what those two women talked about late at night. There must have been some doubts and fears about how this could possibly work out.
While Mary was gone, Joseph must have wrestled with his own problems. Being betrothed to Mary was much more serious than merely being engaged. It meant Joseph had agreed to be responsible for Mary. The couple had already taken a sort of pre-marriage vow, and to learn that Mary was carrying a child must have been a tremendous blow to a man who knew he had honored his vows to her.
Joseph would have been perfectly justified in publicly denouncing Mary, yet after much consideration, he decided to very quietly divorce or step away from her with no public shaming.
I’m sure his family had a lot to say about that decision. I’m sure he had a cousin or a friend or someone who made sure to tell him just how foolish he would look by treating Mary with compassion. Still he stood his ground. He would not be cruel to this young woman he had known all his life, this young woman he cared for and had planned to marry.
Only after Joseph made this decision to quietly put Mary away from him, did God send an angel to explain everything. I wonder how long the angel had to talk. How quickly did Joseph grasp the significance? And did he do so with relief, or with some skepticism, or with patient resignation. Did he realize the responsibility of becoming the stepfather to the Child of God?
I bet his family had a lot to say about that, too, about the marriage proceeding as planned in spite of all appearances.
So, you see, the young couple had to be emotionally drained as well as physically exhausted when they got into Bethlehem. Newlyweds…Mary nine months pregnant…Joseph concerned for his young wife, worried and frustrated that on top of everything they had been through, he was expected to drag her out in this condition to fulfill the government requirement for a stupid census.
Imagine how frustrated, how angry, how helpless this young husband must have felt when he began to realize that there was not one room left in Bethlehem where they could relax.
Was the stable where they finally settled offered to them by some kindhearted soul who saw Mary’s condition or Joseph’s frustration? Or did a greedy innkeeper see a chance to make some pocket money by charging a desperate man for the only space available where a tired couple could pass the night relatively dry and safe?
We’ll never know for sure. All we know now, some two thousand years later, is that God’s Plan would happen. For in the night, in the stable, in the little town of Bethlehem, to an ordinary couple, road weary and far from home, a Child was born.
Every year I try to think how it must have been that night. All the frustrations and human failures and problems, all the hurt and the sorrow and the pain, everything that was ordinary fell away, paled in the face of the miracle not just of birth, but Birth.
And if ever there was a time when the earth stood poised with all of eternity within our grasp, it must have been that night, when the angels sang to shepherds and a young mother cradled the Son of God in the form of a baby.
Every year, I try desperately to think how the world must have felt that night.