What is our role in the Christmas Story?

As children we may have taken part in the “Nativity Play”. Festooned with cardboard wings and glitter, we may have played the angels, or in our father’s old bathrobe, hitched up with a rope belt, taken our part as shepherds. If we were judged to be wholly lacking in dramatic gifts, we may have been cast as a palm tree. Secretly most little girls longed to play Mary, though the part usually required both an angelic expression and a cascade of golden ringlets thus disqualifying a child with red braids, freckles and a taste for mischief…

Our child’s heart quickly learned not to aspire to dreams beyond our reach.

And yet the Christmas Story continues to carry its own enchantment. Year after year we enter it, welcoming its familiar storylines, greeting its supportive cast of shining angels, stumbling shepherds, overburdened innkeepers, royal camel-driving Wise Ones, with affection.

Each year we experience something more. As with all great archetypal tales, what we bring to the listening becomes part of the story. No other story holds this power of transmutation, this gift of shape-shifting into what each of us most needs to hear… this capacity to take us beyond ordinary time into mythic time where we ourselves become part of a greater story.

As Jean Houston describes it in her book Godseed:

In the telling and the taking of the myth, you leave behind your usual time and are symbolically and psychologically projected into Great Time, into a paradoxical moment that cannot be measured because it has no duration. There is a breach in time and in the surrounding world. The inner psyche opens and a passage to the possible human is revealed. (p.33)

In this sacred experience of Great Time, we recognize that we are living the Christmas Story in our own time on this planet. We do not have to imagine the displacement, the discomfort, the life-endangering journeys resulting from the call of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world be taken and people must travel to their own towns to be counted… Today’s emperors initiate through their inhumane policies a huge migration of people away from their home towns and countries with appalling results in human suffering.

We live in a time of immense longing for a more humane and life-enhancing world… as a young songwriter reflected: giving a Christmas meal to the hungry is a lovely gesture, but in a better world, the hungry would be fed every day….

Christmas is about yearning for something to come into the world,” Jean Houston believes. “It’s the story of the birth of love, of hope, of a Holy Child in huge danger of being destroyed, bringing a new order of possibility into the world, needing to be protected and nurtured so it may grow into a free and luminous, numinous being.”   

In the midst of the suffering across the planet that is reported to us hourly in words and pictures, the Universe invites us to play the role to which we may once have aspired: to be a bearer of new life for a world that hungers for so much.

The Universe invites each of us to play the role of Mary (golden curls not required).

Here is how John O’Donohue imagines that invitation:

Cast from afar before the stones were born

And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,

The words have waited for the hunger in her

To become the silence where they could form.

 The day’s last light frames her by the window,

A young woman with distance in her gaze,

She could never imagine the surprise

That is hovering over her life now.

The sentence awakens like a raven,

Fluttering and dark, opening her heart

To nest the voice that first whispered the earth

From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.

She offers to mother the shadow’s child;

Her untouched life becoming wild inside.

Jean Houston encourages us to take this invitation to heart:

Just think of the promise, the potential, the divinity in you,

which you have probably disowned over and over again

because it wasn’t logical, because it didn’t jibe,

because it was terribly inconvenient (it always is),

because it didn’t fit conventional reality,

because… because… because….

What could be more embarrassing than finding yourself pregnant with the Holy Spirit?

It’s a very eccentric, inconvenient thing to have happen.

What are your “becauses”?,

the reasons that you disowned your divine potential,

your divine conceptions.

(“because I felt unworthy…” “because of what people would say…” ) Godseed p. 38

This Christmas, as we listen once again to the story’s unfolding, let us see ourselves as Mary, guided by John O’Donohue’s Visualization:

The Nativity

No man reaches where the moon touches a woman.

Even the moon leaves her when she opens

Deeper into the ripple in her womb

That encircles dark to become flesh and bone.

Someone is coming ashore inside her.

A face deciphers itself from water

And she curves around the gathering wave,

Opening to offer the life it craves.

In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers,

She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears.

A red wire of pain feeds through every vein

Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn.

Outside each other now, she sees him first.

Flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.

John O’Donohue (Connemara Blues

Doubleday, Great Britain, 2000; Bantam Books, 2001)

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