“Joy to the world!” the song rings out. But not everyone feels joyful at Christmas. Anyone who is sick, bereaved, lonely, or unemployed may find trying to sing about joy a bitter irony. Someone who has lost a child may find the sentimental songs about Baby Jesus unbearable. How can we pray with the all-too-familiar Christmas Gospels in such circumstances? How can we get beyond our sadness and suffering to experience the Incarnation?
When Mass was in Latin, each Gospel read at Mass began with the words In illo tempore, literally, “at that time.” Beyond the literal translation, the phrase meant something deeper; “that time” was not a particular year in the first century but another dimension, in which God is with us at all times, out of time.
Let’s try crossing over into illo tempore—through our imagination.
Pray with Luke 2:1–7.
Ride with Mary, nine months pregnant, on the back of a donkey for 90 miles on rough roads from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Feel the pain in her back, the fatigue, and the jolts as the donkey slips and almost stumbles. How would you feel if you ended a long and exhausting journey only to find you had no place to stay? Anxious? Scared? Helpless? When her labor started, how did it feel to lie on the dirty ground? Did the innkeeper’s wife perhaps find a local midwife to help? Or did this teenager and her husband have to figure it out for themselves? Did they have any hot water to wash the newborn? Forget all the traditional religious art in which Mary is fully dressed, neatly combed, and welcoming strangers. How did she really look? How did she feel? Did her milk come readily? How did she comfort a crying, hungry baby? What else do you see, hear, smell? What do you feel? Is God saying something to you? What do you want to say to God?
Pray with Matthew 2:13–15.
Be with Joseph as he awakes from a dream telling him to flee to Egypt. This is the second time God has spoken to him in a dream, a strictly one-way conversation. There is no opportunity to ask questions. There are no helpful instructions. How is he going to transport a new mother and a tiny infant more than 400 miles in the middle of the night? How does he feel about this massive responsibility? I like to think the timely gift of gold from the Magi might have just sufficed, perhaps to hire camels—not exactly comfortable, but fast enough to elude Herod’s henchmen. How does Joseph explain the situation to Mary? How do they prepare the baby for the journey? Is there anyone more helpless than a newborn? Too young to understand what was happening, Jesus could surely sense the anxiety of his parents—the only security a small child knows. What do you make of the image of the Son of God beginning his human life hunted by killers? What else do you see, hear, or feel? What do you want to say to God? Is God saying something to you? Listen.
Pray with John 1:1 (or 1:1–5).
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
In John’s Gospel we have no stable, no straw, no animals, no shepherds, no familiar images—just God’s Word, from before the beginning of time. And the Word was made flesh and continues to dwell among us.