In the bleak midwinter
"This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason,
There'd have been no room for the child."
("After Annunciation," by Madeleine L'Engle)
Even in our mostly secular culture, the Christmas story of the baby in the Bethlehem manger still has remarkable power. The power to capture our imaginations, to slow us down — if only briefly — to evoke sentimentality, yes, but also to awaken our genuine longing for peace, innocence and fellowship with one another.
Why? After all, it's really only a myth, this story of a man and his young wife, heavy with child, traveling to a far town to be counted, and taxed, by their foreign overlords. Of an inn too full to offer them shelter for the night, and a baby born in a stable, with the animals looking on. Of a star and wise men, angels and shepherds. It's just a story that has become enshrined in our hearts, like so many other stories.
Except that this story is special. This story says that God was intimately involved in the obscure birth in Bethlehem from the very beginning — that, in fact, the child was the embodiment of God's love for creation. This story asks us to believe that love — that eclipse of the ego — is possible, not just for God, but for us as well. This story invites us to put on innocence again, in place of our weary, jaded, self-protective cynicism. This story, if we let it, opens our hearts to the whole world. For an instant, we sense that we are connected to every other person on this earth — indeed, to every living thing.
As Madeleine L'Engle's poem quoted above suggests, this moment calls not for rationality but for "bloom[ing] bright and wild." Blooming in the cold, in the deadness of pain and loss, in the sterile ground of fear. It calls for a trust in the unseen like that shown by Jesus' mother, Mary: a trust that makes us larger inside than out, that mysteriously creates the interior space for the holy child to be born once more, returning us to our own imperishable innocence and goodness.
It is easy, lifted by the lights, the music and the tender story of love born in a stable, to know for a moment our connection with the rest of creation. What's hard is to hold onto that sense of connection, to stay open to the life around us, in the face of fatigue, violence, self-absorption — all the brokenness of our lives and our world.
Perhaps that is the key to the enduring power of the Christmas story. It is a door into another, better world — this world, remade with our hearts and hands. Through it, we step past rationality, pragmatism and ego and glimpse for a moment the baby in the manger, heralded by stars, angels and shepherds, who steals our hearts in spite of ourselves to remind us what hearts are for — only love.