By Jim Vitale
I have a vivid memory of the first and only car accident I have ever been in. It wasn’t anything serious, but it still startled me. My wife was pregnant with our first child and we were driving from our apartment in St. Anthony Village down to Luther Seminary in St. Anthony Park. We were merging from I-35W onto Minnesota 280. Traffic there goes from two lanes down to one lane, and as we got to the merge, I noticed someone coming up behind me in the other lane, trying to pass me before we went down to one lane. I stubbornly and stupidly stayed my course and the other car, a much bigger SUV, collided with the side of our little Saturn Vue, denting and scratching the door and practically tearing off the side-view mirror. There was no avoiding it, no ignoring it. There in the middle of morning rush hour traffic, in the middle of a bottleneck, we pulled off on the shoulder to exchange insurance information.
A couple months before this, Isabel and I had flown out to New York to spend Thanksgiving with my family. It was a lovely time. As the sun started to set, my father placed a beautifully cooked, free-range turkey on the table. Homemade cranberry relish, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, warm rolls, and gravy surrounded the golden-brown bird. We uncorked a bottle of Finger Lakes wine and toasted our family. We laughed and talked and enjoyed each other’s company. After dinner, our bellies uncomfortably full, we made a little more room for pie. Then we retired to the living room to listen to Christmas music, play games, and laugh some more, to give thanks for the gift of family and the many blessings of this life.
Now, which of these two things feels more like Christmas to you: the car accident or the dinner with family?
I think that that first Christmas Eve had a lot more in common with the loud, chaotic car accident than with the lovely, quiet Thanksgiving meal. Christmas is less like a Christmas pageant and more like a 747 ripping across the stage in the middle of a Christmas pageant. It’s less like that picture-perfect tree decorated with ornaments placed just so and more like that sullen Christmas tree that Charlie Brown picked out, the one that can’t seem to keep hold of its needles. Christmas is less like that beautiful bird my father placed on the dinner table at Thanksgiving and more like the one Clark Griswold served in Christmas Vacation. It’s true that nothing says Christmas more than absolute calamity.
Now hear me out. First and foremost, I think Christmas is more like car accident because Jesus’ birth in that little backwater town of Bethlehem was nothing short of a head-on collision between the divine and the human. The moment Jesus was born, the Kingdom of God crashed into our world, shattering life as we knew it. Like me and that big SUV back in Minnesota, God and humanity were about to merge into each other in a way that would capture the attention of everyone around it. People would stop and stare; eye-witnesses like shepherds and wisemen would try to make sense of this thing that had just happened.
Secondly Christmas is like a car accident because car accidents are messy and annoying and inconvenient to say the least; and Mary and Joseph’s experience as they traveled to Bethlehem would have been messy and annoying and inconvenient as well. One commentator remarks that Mary and Joseph were the very first people to experience the torturous drudgery that is holiday travel. Imagine, Mary is just about full-term in her pregnancy; she and Joseph are settled into their new home in Nazareth. Mary is fussing about, nesting as pregnant women do. Then they get word that they have to travel the 70 miles from Nazareth in the north of Israel to Bethlehem in the south. So Joseph and Mary pack what they need, praying to God they will be back home before this baby arrives; then Joseph saddles his donkey, hoists his pregnant fiancée onto the beast, and off they go. It takes them days. Mary’s ankles swell up as she rides along. Jesus’ head pushes on her bladder from one direction while the clip-clopping donkey pushes on her bladder from the other. They stop for bathroom breaks hourly. They camp at night. Joseph rubs Mary’s feet until she falls asleep, then he rubs his own. Then the next morning, they’re back on the road. Braxton-Hicks contractions start to keep rhythm with the donkey’s plodding, adding a whole new layer of discomfort to the experience.
Two days into the travel and Mary starts to daydream about whatever the ancient equivalent of a bubble bath is. That inn is going to feel real nice when they finally get to town. And then smash-cut to Mary and Joseph having a door slammed in their face. There is no room in the inn, or anywhere in town. Hoards of people crowd around a town that was never meant to contain more than a few hundred. Mary, who is normally so serene and patient, has reached the end of her rope; and Joseph, who is usually Mr. Idea Guy has no plan. On their way into town they passed a cave local shepherds used to house some animals. So they turn back and head there. As Mary rests her head against a rock, she thinks to herself, so much for the bubble bath. And that’s when her contractions start. Three days of bouncing up and down on a donkey clearly had an effect.
God is not born into a neat and tidy palace lit with candles, warmed by fireplaces, and festooned with gold and silver. God is born into a stable whose floor is covered in what most stable floors are covered in and which smells like what most stables smell like. This is why Christmas is more like a car accident than a nice meal at home; God comes crashing into our world in the midst of the messy and annoying and inconvenient. Usually, it seems, God doesn’t show up when things are nice and orderly and quiet and peaceful; God shows up in calamity.
If you’re like me, then some years you really get into the Christmas Spirit and other years you don’t. Far as I can tell, whether or not I feel in the Christmas Spirit is a crapshoot over which I have no control. Some years I’m filled with the warm fuzzies, singing Christmas carols, and loving every second of the holidays. Other years I’m preoccupied, thinking about things that haven nothing to do with Christmas, becoming increasingly more annoyed with all the Christmas cheer, and even more annoyed that I have no Christmas cheer myself.
If you’ve woken up today lacking in Christmas spirit, then you are in good company. God did not crash into a world filled with Christmas spirit. God crashed into a world filled with brokenness, pain, and despair. God did not come to the kings and governors and rich folk in their comfy palaces who had it all together. He came to an unwed pregnant couple who were seriously just trying to piece the moments together and a bunch of smelly shepherds whom literally everyone hated. Jesus says that he did not come for the healthy, but the sick, not for the righteous, but for sinners, not for the whole, but for the broken. To put it another way, God did not come to save Buddy the Elf, he came to save Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch who stole Christmas.
On that first Christmas, God came crashing into our world in ways that no one expected; and God continues to crash into our world in ways we never would have expected. If you’re in the Christmas spirit—awesome; enjoy it and savor it with reckless abandon. If you’re not, take heart, it’s often in the moments when we’re “really not feeling it” that God comes crashing in.
And so I pray that, for you, this Christmas might be a little bit messy, and that you might know the good news that God comes crashing into our messy lives to remind us that we are never, ever alone and that we are always, always loved.