The Irvine Tartan ē My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
To talk to folks, youíd think theyíd recognize him. Itís like they talk about him like they know him; like they know him really well. People call him by name and share intimate details of their relationship. But Iím not so sure we know him. Iím not so sure at all.
With each passing day of December I am more and more convinced. Like the other day; I was in a local mall, having a coffee. As I sat there sipping on the hot nectar, I noticed the people navigating the corridors of commerce. I noticed fists clutching parcels. And I noticed tired youngsters being hauled along, hand in hand by an exhausted parent. With sonar precision, customers darted around the onslaught of shoppers without mishap, maintaining the steady pace of pedestrian traffic.
In the background Bing Crosby crooned White Christmas.
I glanced at faces, set and unsmiling; I listened for greetings, but heard none. Worry was painted on one face, pain on another, indifference on a third; and as if in a hall or mirrors, these masks were repeated endlessly.
I imagined myself transported back in time to the bazaar in Bethlehem. The crush of bodies filled the space and while the sights and sounds and smells were different, faces presented the same sense of anguish and anxiety. That hasnít changed either over time or between cultures.
No one was looking for an expectant mother and Joseph in the awning shadows of the marketplace of Bethlehem. There were no tell-take halos to help distinguish one traveller from another. The accent and the weave of the costume would hint at a difference for the discriminating eye. But few noticed and none cared. They were as much ignored as another. The approach of Godís promise left the merchants and the buyers and the travellers unaffected. The presence of Rome eroded the solitude of Davidís City. The demands of an imperial census and with it ethnic profiling brought disruption to the pattern of life. No one thought to seek for peace; and no one considered a Prince of Peace. One jostled another; and customer and merchant haggled. Purchases were taken home, along with worry and the ever-present foreboding that hung over the City.
Not much has changed, it occurred to me.
Economic uncertainly, the threat of war, corporate corruption, exploitation and injustice weigh heavily on passers-by today as then. Mary and Joseph passed unrecognized. They would pass unrecognized yet.
As the coffee receded in my cup, I glanced down the length of the shoppers first one way, and then in the other direction. It occurred to me that the birth of the baby borne by Mary was among such as us, caught in the rush and crush of the day. Indifferent preoccupation has numbed generation after generation. Worn down by relentless expectations and unavoidable disappointments, people now, as then, rise to the occasion and live lives in search.
Grasping fists provide temporary relief. Perhaps it isnít a gift weíre looking for after all. Marketing has made us restless. The relentless pilgrimage demanded by commerce greets us, jaded as we are. Past ornaments, gifts, oblations are reminiscent and nostalgic, but unsatisfying. Our search was exhilarating and the purchase satisfying. But the lustre is short lived once home. It may last till the exchange of presents, but inexplicable disappointment soon follows. Perhaps we have disappointed another. Possibly another has misread our heartís desire and we have been disappointed. The accumulation of more and more stuff shows our search to have been in vain.
Our search has an energy fed by loneliness and pain and it empowers us to press on, unsmiling, furtive, penetrating. We yearn for acceptance, approval, love.
Not surprisingly a birth gets unnoticed. We donít miss what weíre not looking for. Itís in the footsteps that we get to know one another, recognize each other. Nobody noticed Maryís foot steps. And Josephís steps were like hundreds of others. The dirt in the street did not imprint the tread of their sandals for the benefit of others.
The birth did not attract many and those it did, saw an infant boy baby like others before him. Joy and smiles were shared but not in any degree that would mark this night as different from other nights. In the ordinary, in the pain, in the dislocation of so many from their homes, a birth was a commonplace event.
He was born in the midst of commerce and ethnic profiling during a census. He was born into a tradesmanís home and all of the advantages and disadvantages such a birth would warrant. His birth in Bethlehem had gone unnoticed. It still goes unnoticed.
Oh, weíll sing hymns, and midnight Mass will swell pews; wreaths and greenery and the smell of balsam will quicken our pulse. But it will grow lack lustre Ė untilÖ, until we recognize our need for this birth and the reality of Godís presence among us. The emptiness we yearn to fill is our emptiness and the grace and truth of this holy season is the only satisfactory filling. We have come to call him by name.
And once we have recognized his footprint, we exchange our burden, lighter now, and follow him to a cross.
Copyright © 2002 James T. Irvine
penultimate WORD - Festivals of Light Series