In the old Nativity scene at my parents’ home, one of the very realistic aspects is written on the face of Joseph: He looks tired. He should. It had been a pretty rotten week for him till a brilliant moment arrived.
Think about it: He was engaged to a woman he loved, Mary, but then she became pregnant — and not by him. When the time of birth arrived, it was also the time of the census and they had to travel by foot (or, at best, by donkey) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That 80-mile trip — four 20-mile days with a woman nine months pregnant — must have been grueling. Then, of course, they arrived to find no room at the inn. His fiancée then, at this low moment, goes into labor.
What a mass of humiliations for this man! Even if I were reassured by an angel, if I were sitting among the straw and stench of a barn, bone-tired, ashamed of the public appearance of my family, and then called on to deliver a baby, I might break.
But then there is that brilliant moment. Some of us know that moment, of holding a newborn, a new life, in our arms, a being so small that his head rests in a bent elbow and his feet in your palm, tiny hands reaching out into the air. It is overwhelming and whole.
For Joseph and Mary, there were more brilliant moments. The shepherds, alerted by an angel, arrive to see the baby and share what they had heard from the angel, aswirl in amazement. Later, kings from afar visit with gifts beyond imagination — yet another wonderful flash in time.
It ends, of course. The little family flees to Egypt because the government is killing children under age 2 — think about that next time you complain of government over-reach — and they must hide their baby. But we capture that tableau of the parents, the shepherds, the animals and the newborn in every crèche, even as we know the pain and hardship before and after.
Open-eyed wonder at brilliant moments is for all of us, of course. It can come at any time, even in the midst of the most mundane task.
One busy Saturday in the H-E-B grocery store on Wooded Acres I pushed through an aisle looking for pasta sauce. Coming toward me was a woman in her 60s, tall and elegant. As she approached, she slowed and looked at another woman, this one in her 40s, who was eying a bottle of Bertolli Five Cheese. An inveterate eavesdropper, I faked an interest in lasagna noodles and loitered.
As the older woman came close, she made eye contact with the younger one, straightened to her full height and said sharply, “Third position!”
The younger one flushed a little, stood bolt upright and moved her feet quickly, one in front of the other and facing opposite directions. As she did so, her hands went out to her sides and her fingers melded together like lithe spoons. She held that pose for a moment.
Then they both laughed. The older woman reached out and touched the younger one on the shoulder and moved past, no longer a 24-year-old ballet teacher instructing an eager 6-year-old girl. I don’t know what came before and after that moment for either of them, but it was a brilliant moment, full of life and deep connection. It was a little like Christmas.
While they walked away, I lingered a few minutes. Probably I moved my feet, seeing if I could attain the third position. I did not want to let that moment go.
We are built that way, I suppose; after the shepherds told Mary what they had heard about her son, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” It’s the perfect word — “pondered” — to capture that reflection and recognition of what is happening in those brilliant if fleeting moments. We cannot let them pass without at least that, even amid the tumult in our own lives, our nation and our world. There may be hardship behind and hardship ahead, yet there is Christmas.