When my grandmother was young–in her teens or twenties–she, quite coincidentally, ran into her high school physical education teacher once in New York City. This is odd because she went to high school in Durham, North Carolina.
I wish I knew more details of this story. I wish I knew, for example, what brought each of them to New York City in the first place, where they were in the city, and whether they talked about it after the fact, having both returned to North Carolina, I like to picture them there at this time of the year, surrounded by Christmas decorations and festive window displays, but these kind of details never seemed important in my grandmother’s recalling of the event. Instead, the story–which, by all definitions, is a really bad story that we heard over and over again–went like this.
My grandmother was going through a revolving door in New York City, where she came face-to-face with her teacher. When her teacher saw her and recognized her, the teacher said three words:“Oh, you’re here.” The end.
See? I told you it was a bad story.
But something about this story stuck with my grandmother long after her memory for lots of other things had faded. There was something so unexpected and yet at the same time so ordinary in this chance encounter.
Every Christmas, when I read the story of Jesus’ birth, a different detail catches my attention. This year, the thing that strikes me about this story is not necessarily the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ birth, as it often is at other times, but the way in which, much like my grandmother’s chance encounter with her P.E. teacher in a revolving door in New York City, it was kind of, shall we say, ordinary in an “Oh, you’re here” kind of way. As in, why would we expect anything different?
It’s not that there are no extraordinary elements to this miraculous birth, for certainly there are. The fact that this was God’s child, or God’s very own self, is perhaps the most out-of-the-ordinary detail here. In the ancient world, gods did not live on earth, but remained far away in the heavens, quite distant from human life. One theologian talks about the irregular nature of this birth, referring to the notation he read at the top of the written music for a Christmas Carol–that the tempo was “irregular.” Of course it’s irregular, he writes! The birth of this child was different from every other birth and, as a result, was meant to shake up the world in an irregular, extraordinary kind of way. Add 2000+ years to the mix, and the whole scene feels not just irregular, but foreign to us, even if we have grown accustomed to cute little kids dressed up as Mary and Joseph and sheep and cows.
The whole scenario feels almost unreal, like a fairy tale–the journey to Bethlehem (which, by the way did not specifically include a donkey), the angels, the shepherds, the star, the manger. It all seems so very distant from births today that occur in very sanitary hospital rooms. I think it’s partly why we have set this scene apart in our everyday lives, putting little figurines on shelves in our homes with instructions to our little people not to touch it; we set the scene apart as being special and different, if not also breakable. But I wonder if the extraordinary nature of this birth that we set aside and that we we are careful not to break does not also make it a bit inaccessible to us.
And distant and inaccessible is definitely one thing God is not.
I prefer the santon tradition of southern France that places in the creche scenes not only the holy family, but all the townspeople, traditionally 55 figures, including the scissors grinder, the fishwife, and the chestnut seller. The presence of so many common people goes to show that the birth of Christ was really “good news of great joy for all people.” A remarkable birth? Yes, but among ordinary people and ordinary circumstances. And by ordinary, I mean, as the dictionary suggests, with no “special or distinctive features,” or, in other words, commonplace. And what is the benefit of being commonplace? Relatability. Understanding. Proximity. Hope, even. It’s why we liked Prince William’s bride, Kate Middleton. She was not royalty, but rather, broadly speaking, one of “us.”
Just think of the situation in which Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph, who were commoners, had been summoned to Joseph’s hometown for a census. The purpose of the census was so that the emperor could collect taxes. And, with the recent tax bill having become law this week, we all know that there’s nothing that makes us feel more commonplace than the practice of paying your taxes. Mary and Joseph were no different. The people who benefited from this tax–namely, the emperor–was the one who was not like the others. But Mary and Joseph, like the rest of us, were simply trying to do their best to make a living and not get crushed by the weight of all that life threw their way. And, the manger was perhaps not that out-of-the-ordinary, either. In fact, it’s likely that animals were kept in guest rooms overnight, and so Mary and Joseph’s lodging, albeit with animals, was in the very room they would have expected to use as guests.
And then there are the shepherds, of course, to whom the angel announced “good news of great joy for all people.” The shepherds were perhaps the most common of commoner, the most ordinary of ordinary people, the lowliest of the lowly. They existed, but no one really noticed them all that much. So you can imagine their surprise, not only when the angel announced that the good news was for all people–all people!–but that this good news was born in a setting that felt right at home to them, among their own flocks. Good news never came to them, and yet, here it was.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m all about extraordinary occurrences. They leave us inspired and in awe. They make us want to praise God for all the things that God has, does, and is able to do and for God’s great power and might. But if I want comfort? Well, if I want comfort, then I want God to appear in and among the ordinary, the commonplace, and the mundane. I want to be able to look around, whatever my circumstances may be and say, “Oh, you’re here?…And here?…And here, too?” I want God to be one of us, to be beside us and among us; and that’s what happened when Jesus was born. God really did become just another average Joe. That’s what makes this story stick. It is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.
On one snowy winter night, around this time of the year, a man by the name of George Albright was curled up by the fireside in his living room, when he was suddenly startled by a thump thump thump sound that seemed to come from his large living room window. He went to the window and looked out and found a pile of birds huddled in the snow. It turns out they had been seeking shelter from the storm, attempting to fly into his living room. The thump thump thump sound he heard was that of the birds flying into the window. He wanted to help the birds and thought of the barn in the back of his house. So he opened the doors to the barn and turned on the light, but the birds didn’t move. He tried luring them in with bread crumbs, but that just scared them which caused them to fly frantically everywhere but into the barn. Then he had a thought, “If only I could be a bird myself and mingle with them and speak their language and show them the way to the barn, then they could see and understand.” Maybe then, in this remarkable transformation, they would say, “Oh, you’re here.”*
Dear friends, God became quite ordinary, one of us, in that stable long ago. The result if that, from that point on, we can look around, at both the ordinary and the extraordinary and say, “Oh, you’re here!” and be comforted in that fact.
*from the story, “If Only…” in Derric Johnson’s book, The Wonder of Christmas. Tulsa, Oklahoma: Honor Books, 1988.