Though Christmas comes with tidings of comfort and joy, it also comes with tidings of discomfort and trouble, where love finds its deepest measure not at home with family and friends, but out on the open road on your way to who knows where.
It’s how St. Matthew tells it anyway, recalling the holy family’s flight into Egypt, a story told against the urgent backdrop of another story: the story of the massacre of innocents, a story recalling not the one child who survived but the many who didn’t. It’s an abysmal world St. Matthew dares to hold onto lest we decorate our understanding of Christmas with too many lights: a story from hell set firmly within the nativity narrative itself.
According to the late Leonard Cohen, “Every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” It’s an old Jewish idea: the notion that you learn to put your whole trust in the promises of God by way of exile and heartbreak because when you’re on your own, separated from kin and country, it’s all you have.
By way of a dream that came to him unguarded and asleep, St. Joseph got up and took the child and his mother into Egypt as if tracking with the life of Moses. Joseph did this because it wasn’t safe to go home, and because God mysteriously called his son into exile. Though biblical scholars mostly doubt the historicity of this story, what I notice in it is how it lands the holy family in a place where nothing made sense to them.
We are those people the angel spoke of: the people who long for good news, who need good news to come to all people. If we’ve learned anything this last year, it’s how helplessly related we are to all people — how other lives have consequence in our own. Always have, always will.
If only the angels would come again to light our way. If only some heavenly illumination would renew our way of looking at each other — at all people — every hour of every day. But the angels never stay, do they? They always vanish into heaven and leave us in the dark.
It’s what happened to Mary: the angel came and left her. And it’s what happened to the shepherds, too: the angel left them as well. They must have been amazed, though, by the angel’s sudden appearance: must have shuttered their eyes from the blazing glory of it all, only to open them and find the vision gone.
What happened next, though, means to take you by surprise. You see, the shepherds didn’t wait on the angel’s return. Instead, they ran off toward Bethlehem on foot in search of that thing the angel spoke of.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
For most of a year now, we’ve all been withering under the force of pandemic and division. Yet through it all, the Church has done her best to hold before us the Word of God that stands forever.
For this reason, I think, the season of Advent comes with particular sorrows as we look to Christmas. And yet, in truth, they are the same old sorrows, the perpetual sorrows of a world in need of a savior beyond our making.
Today Advent asks us to remember we are grass, the same way Lent asks us to remember we are dust. Advent means to ground us all in the humble truth of our own lives, there to look for the miracles of God.
To admit we are grass is to accept that other people are also grass — the plans we make: grass — made of stuff that falls apart or doesn’t turn out like we planned. And the more desperate we are to deny this truth about being human, the more damage we do to others — to the world and to the earth.
Richard Rohr has it we can measure how alienated we are from the grace of God and the communion of others by how often we’re offended, whether by other people or by the world itself. When things don’t go our way, we often forget we are grass.
Story note: I wrote and illustrated this story at the unexpected intersection of COVID-19 and the feasts of Passover and Easter. I was inspired by the gospel accounts of an empty tomb marking the Resurrection, by St. Mary Magdalene not seeing what she came looking for in the Gospel according to John, by a second coming hidden away in the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and by a rabbinic story about forgetting and sufficiency in The Poetry of Kabbalah, translated by Peter Cole, Yale University Press, 2012, 241. LFB