The season of holidays and hanging out with family and friends has come upon us: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year! With rapid succession, we will be tasked with preparations. Of course, we put a lot of thought and planning into each event, as we should. Why? We do it for the people that we love and care about; that’s who we’re preparing to receive, refresh, and encourage. And God knows we are all longing to be received, refreshed, and encouraged these days!
In our Instagram-filtered world, however, there may be tremendous pressure that everything turns out perfectly regarding these preparations. When things don’t, we can often feel the failure. We could succumb to the feeling of never being good enough, smart enough, artistic enough...fill in the blank. When we see other people’s seemingly “perfect” posts online, it can be akin to tossing gasoline on those self-inflicted fires. As the saying goes, comparing leads to despairing.
To liberate us from this unhealthy pressure and perhaps a scrupulous perfectionism, let’s take a look at a couple who were making some holiday preparations for a special Guest in the year 0 B.P. (Before Pinterest). It was the first Christmas, over 2000 years ago, and Jesus Christ was expected to arrive one dark December evening. The Eternal Son of the Father, Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Whom all things were made, both visible and invisible. Yes, that Jesus. No pressure, right?
The expectation of His arrival had only been brewing since, well, Genesis 3:15 when the seed of the woman would be born Who would crush the head of the ancient serpent and restore healing and communion with God for the whole human race. So there’s been plenty of time to get this welcome party prepared with style. And the Planner has skills. He is literally Divine at what He does.
And so it happened, in the expert orchestration of the Almighty Father, from time immemorial, through the careful working of His Plan, through winged inspiration and its humble reception, to generation after generation of only the finest and most fitting of human lives stretched out over history like an ornate tapestry of the most elite and immaculate persons ever faithful to God, that from this august and splendid lineage (and only this most august and splendid lineage!) that the Lord took flesh and entering in took up His royal throne of precious marble, studded with gems of emerald, sapphire, and ruby, and the elders and leaders, kings and queens and other various and sundry fancy people gave a great shout of joyful reception, yeah even as His silken baby blankets (also studded with gems) trailed off of said marble throne to the homage and adoration of all the people…hold up, that’s not what happened. Not remotely.
We’ve been saturated for so long by the images of how He actually did come into the world that I think we think it actually DID seem this splendid. As if the manger was tucked into a Thomas Kinkade painting, or that a heavenly light and incense so filled and fragranced the stable that it covered over the stink of animal feces and the moist drippings coming from the dank stone that surrounded them. But it didn’t.
Mary and Joseph were poor. He was a blue-collar worker. She was pregnant. Yes, he was from the line of David, but given the speculative science that the furthest person genetically removed from you is at least your 50th cousin, aren’t we all from a royal line?
Joseph and Mary would’ve had mighty modest rooms to receive Him as it was, but then duty called. Joseph had to drag the budding family to Bethlehem to fulfill an inflexible governing census mandate. And that Divine Birth foretold since time immemorial that all of humanity had been thirsting for? It “interrupted” their travel plans and landed smack dab in the middle of the night without so much as a Holiday Inn King Bed City View Suite to receive Him. No silken sheets, marble floors, handmaidens, or helpers - just the smelly animals they shared a stall with.
Now, before we look at the interior disposition of this hard-pressed and beautiful young couple, and how they handled the drama, let’s ask how we would. Actually, let’s rephrase that since He didn’t just come then, and this Divine Invasion of Love wasn’t just a one-time event locked in the first century Middle East. How do we handle His coming now? He’s still coming, still knocking, still seeking to make a nest within our present cavernous hearts. Do we think we have to have everything in order first? Clean up our act? Sterilize our hands and our hearts so that the All-Holy will deign to even look in our general direction?
If we are waiting for our own personal perfection to be the pass that allows us to enter the Divine Presence, then it’s going to be a long wait. And thank God HE wasn’t waiting for it either! Let’s go back to my fictitious alternate universe. Just imagine if God really required that the family tree of His Son Jesus consist of “…generation after generation of only the finest and most fitting of human lives… an ornate tapestry of the most elite and immaculate persons ever faithful to God”? The reality is, the sexual history of the Tree of Jesse looks like a bad soap opera: incest, prostitution, adultery. The other deviant choices of those ancestors included murder, theft, lies, and a rather consistent breaking of the covenant.
We don’t need to be perfect to be loved. We don’t have to have it all together to have Him come together with the Father and the Spirit. We just have to open the door and They will enter and sup with us. Let this sink in, because it’s a game-changer. Now for some potent words from a pastor of God’s precious flock for many years, Joseph Ratzinger, the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
“In the human dream of a perfect world, holiness is always visualized as untouchability by sin and evil.” We tend “to think in terms of black and white … to cut out and reject mercilessly [whatever we consider] negative … That is why the aspect of Christ’s holiness that upset his contemporaries was the complete absence of this condemnatory note – fire did not fall on the unworthy, nor were the zealous allowed to pull up the weeds … On the contrary, this holiness expressed itself precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity…”
Ah! His holiness is sweet enough to co-mingle with the fodder of our own sins, the stinky manger of our own hearts! This co-mingling is in fact His delight! It was His mission from the start! How could we have missed this!? Benedict XVI continues with exhilarating freedom:
“He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot and so revealed what true ‘holiness’ is: not separation, but union, not judgment, but redeeming love. Is the Church not simply the continuation … of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin…?”
How are you feeling now about that special Thanksgiving turkey you scorched? The sweet potato soufflé you forgot to add the marshmallows to and now is quite unappealing? Who cares! God loves me!
“Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity, but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it? … I must admit that to me this unholy holiness of the Church has in itself something infinitely comforting about it.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, pp. 264-265).
And there’s the understatement of this season of expectation. How “infinitely comforting” this God of ours is, Who purifies our porn addictions and saves us from our sexual sins not by a Divine Pardon from above, far removed from us “filthy” sinners, but rather by stepping into the muddy waters of our sins. He plants the wheat of grace right within the weeds of our misdirected hunger.
Stick a fork in this Christmas ham because I’m done. Done with my own fears and worries of not being good enough, ready enough, right enough. The question is simply, am I open enough? Am I open enough even in my sins and addictions to allow Him to step into my mess? Come, Lord Jesus; my heart is ready.
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