When Christmas falls on a Sunday you can bet that the sanctuary, candle-gleaming and chock-full at the Christmas Eve service, will be drafty and near-empty in the morning. That’s because when Christmas falls on a Sunday, even the most stalwart church-goers tend to be stalwart stay-at-homes. After all, they were in church fewer than twelve hours ago. How many times in one 24 hour stretch do you need to hear the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby?
Maybe I’d be a stalwart stay-at-home, too, but I’ve got to be in church. And so, last Sunday morning, in the gray morning light, I headed out onto snowy roads to the congregation I serve.
In fact, it was a wonderful time to be on the road: Everything was quiet—no one out for a walk or a run, scarcely any cars, the aura of frantic commercialism entirely absent. It was the empty parking lots that most caught my attention. As I drove first past this Commercial Commons and then past that Commercial Mall and the Commercial Galleria across from it, then on past the Mega Market-and-Food-Courts still ahead, I realized I had never seen so many empty lots—an eerie sight, and a little post-apocalyptic, but also deeply satisfying.
I imagined house after house with people slowly rousing themselves from sleep, children anxious to discover their toys, parents brewing coffee, everyone in slippers and bathrobes, not having or needing anywhere to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to make romantic the prosaic or turn a blind eye to the fact that not all families love enforced time together and not all people who live alone enjoy the solitude. But for this one morning there was something refreshing about knowing that shopping as an antidote to family strife, bad marriages, loneliness or depression was not an option.
Because all the shops were closed.
So I found myself wondering what was going on behind the shuttered windows and closed doors of the houses that line the streets off either side of Route 5. The people living there had to do something other than the usual routines—kids to school, parents to work, retired people out to volunteer or visit the gym or stop off at Panera for a coffee and a pastry. This morning was a break from the usual.
And a break from the usual forces us to ask ourselves “what do I do now?”
In truth, that’s what I love best about the Christmas story, the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby. It’s not a fun story at all. It’s a fraught story of impoverished refugees in flight for their lives. And all throughout the story, once the people hear of the baby’s birth, they are also forced to ask themselves, “What do I do now?”
The shepherds, poor schlemiels in the field, decide to go to Bethlehem (and what of the sheep?). The Wise Men, Herod’s hired informants go AWOL, risking their necks and betraying their master. Mary and Joseph bring the baby to the temple for circumcision and there they meet a man called Simeon who praises the baby in odd and ominous language. He tells Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Not what most folks say to moms of newborns.
“What do I do now?” is the question that each player in the story must ask in order to find a way to protect the baby.
On those rare, awakened occasions when we can manage to actually pay attention to our own lives, we discover we must ask that question, too. We must ask it over and over in order to protect what is precious to us--in our personal lives, of course. And in our lives as fellow earth dwellers committed to the welfare of the human community.
And then, having asked the question, we must not be afraid to act with boldness and with love.