My nephew and his new wife really wanted to have a child. And after about a year of trying – but who’s counting – they conceded it wasn’t happening! Already for about two years, they had considered their chocolate lab as one of the family, practically equal to a human child to love and care for. But finally, deciding they wanted more, they went to see a fertility specialist. After the requisite testing and screening, the OBGYN recommended they were indeed good candidates for fertility treatment. Well, long story short, on October 3, they had twins! We haven’t had twins in our family for at least 3 generations! For my mom, that doubles the count of great-grandchildren!
Joseph and Mary are having just one little baby. They can count on that. That is, if they survive the journey to Bethlehem for the count of the emperor’s census! “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
And so, young Mary and Joseph dutifully make the 100K hike to enroll in Rome’s taxation. Their immediate cross to bear, however, was finding a place to take them in. The unwed couple is swept away from the familiar surroundings of home, in Nazareth of Galilee in the north, only to be shut out of housing (Posadas) in Bethlehem of Judea, in the south of Israel. The innkeeper turns them away, saying they’re full up. Or was it something he saw in them he didn’t like: teenagers, Galileans, rival tribe or family? ‘I can give you a place in back with the animals,’ says the Innkeeper, but, I imagine him saying, ‘I’ll have to charge you the same price!’ Mary, the God-bearer, is given the least of accommodations. And Jesus, no crib for a bed even, is laid in a feeding trough for the animals, called a manger. The emperor is counting on them, literally, for tax purposes, but no one else, save the sheep and the Shepherds, tells them they count.
Ten days ago now, 20 children and 6 adults senselessly lost their lives in Newtown, CT, in another American gun tragedy. But who’s counting! As horrific as it is – 6 and 7 year olds, so close to Christmas – still, apart from our collective national mind that has been awakened, it makes you wonder, is one life more important than another? Elementary school children more than high school kids? The children in CT, as opposed to the 35 children killed in Gaza last month? Or the 231 children killed in Afghanistan in the first 6 months of this year? What of the nearly 500 homicides in Chicago this year, more than one a day? Which ones count more, or less? Whose parents will grieve less, or oddly, forgive more?
Jesus – born into our world, born as one of us, the infant lowly, rejected by the powerful – is laid in a manger, totally vulnerable, and at the mercy of the world. Pictures of this event are among the world’s most popular 2,000 years later: Madonna and Child, mother holding infant, in practically every culture and nation. Christmas awakens that vulnerability in us. Families gather, we spend lots of time and energy on giving more than receiving, and the coffers of charities are remembered and refilled. The consciousness of the nation and world coalesce for a brief moment, and fullness of life and peace seem possible. We are willing to hold one another!
The well-being of the new-born Jesus, his surviving and thriving, depended on the willingness of other human beings to protect and sustain him. Today we see this in our Nativity scenes, as Mary and Joseph hold him, and, we can imagine, do whatever is needed to help “him grow and become strong,” as Luke says. In Jesus, an heir and child of God, a new part of God’s DNA is born – God’s vulnerability. Because of the manger we are reborn to adore and hold Jesus with awe and wonder. Yet, at the other end of Jesus’ life, we find that, despite his innocence, nothing can save him from being sentenced to death. What does this new vulnerability say about our God? Or more to the point, what is God telling us about ourselves?
Survivors in Newtown were photographed, perhaps most often, as they embraced and held one another. A particularly moving picture is the one of a young girl, slightly taller and older, hugging a boy as he gazed back at the school. When words fail, the first thing we want to do is hold on to our loved ones and friends. In the face of grave danger, survivors can comfort each other with the closeness of human contact, bridging the vulnerability that we all come from, and reassuring one another that we count.
Another famous rendering of mother and child is Michelangelo’s Pietà, when Mary holds Jesus’ lifeless body after it was taken down from the cross. The sadness, is lifted up by the compassion of her loving embrace. It reminds me too of the gift given, in Newtown, by a parent of one of the children that was killed, Robbie Parker. He was the last one I expected to offer comfort and forgiveness to the family of shooter, Adam Lanza. “I want you to know that our love and support go out to you as well,” said Mr. Parker about the killings, that they “not turn into something that defines us, but something that inspires us to be better, to be more compassionate and more humble people,” he concluded. Forgiveness can be a powerful tool in our lives, because it reaches out past our own vulnerability to name all people as creatures who count in God’s eyes, and in our own eyes too, even for those who hurt our loved ones.
And so we continue to hold one another up, strengthening each other in life and love, out of our vulnerability, which no amount of guns can ever insure.
If I could give an award this year in 2012, for the hard work of peace and justice on behalf of the vulnerable, I think I would choose, “Nuns on the Bus.” In the middle of a contentious political year, they rose above the fray. As leader Simone Campbell said, “We’re idealists, but we’re not naïve.” And so, wherever the Bus stopped, they were greeted with hugs, because they stood up against powers much more prominent and spoke the truth on behalf of the most vulnerable: the working poor, some 46M, those without access to effective healthcare, and without housing due to the foreclosure crisis. They spoke as people of deep faith for those in the real world, whom only Shepherds and Angels usually notice. So, Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus get my vote!
Just to let you know, regarding my nephew and niece-in-law, I’m happy to report that their twins are healthy and growing – a girl and a boy – though both parents, predictably, are sleep deprived! And at Thanksgiving, still tiny at seven weeks, and mostly sleeping, I finally got to hold them, so vulnerable, yet well-loved little miracles. They are accounted for in our family – they count!
On this holy night God tells us that we count – in our vulnerability, God cradles us, God loves us, God is with us, as one of us. We embrace this vulnerability that Jesus taught us, as the way to salvation, peace and life for all.