When does it really feel like Christmas? For me, getting the box of Christmas decorations down from the loft is the definitive December ritual: all those bits and pieces packed away from last year, joyfully rediscovered and pressed into festive service.
But I would guess that, in most households, there is always at least one decoration orphaned at the bottom. An unsuccessful nursery project, a vulgar present, a broken favourite that one cannot quite bear to throw away.
In our house, it is the kind gift of a godmother: a glass bauble keepsake that fbears the legend “Baby’s First Christmas.” I never did put it on the tree, I must confess, because I have twins, and it felt wrong just to honour one of them; and then it wasn’t their first Christmas any more. But still it sits there, in the bottom of the box, carefully bubble-wrapped.
It is a weird experience, being pregnant with twins. For most of the pregnancy, mine were lying in bunk-bed formation, like sleeping pharaohs. In a later scan, they had turned to face each other, and were playing pat-a-cake. When, finally, the contractions started, my clever body morphed into an air-traffic controller and started lining them up like planes in a stack. It is a very humbling experience, learning about the wisdom held deep in your body. More than that, it was my first really visceral experience of co-creation with God.
When I was little, my favourite fairy tale was “Elise and the 11 swans”. In it, her wicked stepmother turns her brothers into swans. To turn them back, Elise has to make 11 nettle shirts, while remaining completely silent. She is tried for witchcraft before she has finished the last one. At the scaffold, her brothers fly down and she throws the shirts over them. They are transformed, but her youngest brother is left with a swan’s wing, where she ran out of nettles. One of my twins has a bit of enamel missing from a tooth, where I ran out of nettles building her.
When we ponder the mystery of Mary’s bearing Jesus, the focus tends to be on the annunciation and the birth rather than on the pregnancy itself. And then we gallop off into the liturgical year, towards Calvary and Easter. But what of that long nine months of nettle-weaving? Jesus was wrought from the very cells of Mary’s body, God incarnate but wholly man, born of woman.
Everyone who has been pregnant or involved in accompanying a pregnancy knows how mesmerising it is monitoring day-to-day progression, now delivered to your inbox by a choice of apps heralding each tiny development. Triumphantly eschewing alcohol or soft cheeses, or whatever is ruled out by the dietary advice of the day, modern-day Marys hunch over their precious cargo, building and weaving, day by day, one precious cell at a time.
In his poem “Descent”, Malcolm Guite writes: “They sought to soar into the skies Those classic gods of high renown For lofty pride aspires to rise But you came down.” It is into these very cells, this painstaking work, that God came down, becoming incarnate in the baby Jesus.
It is this smallness that is catching my attention this year. Those nine months when I was the twin-bearer, I was careful about everything. Slowing down, taking time, giving attention; trying to be as perfect as possible in every detail, even down to that not-quite-finished baby tooth.
As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is knitted in relationship; and God came down at Christmas to show us who we can be, in our very humanity. Living in communities of relationship ourselves, as salt and light, we are all called to take care in weaving the nettles of our lives, to use our labours to free those around us to be who they truly are.
We know that our every thought and choice and action generate consequences for ourselves and for those around us: every accidental oversight, every unintended slight, and every casual discourtesy; but, equally, every smile, every greeting, every kindness.
We also know that there will be many people attending church over Christmas who do not usually come. They might well sit in the wrong pew, forget to collect a hymn book, and walk the wrong way back from the altar, but what they notice about how the church behaves as a community that day will stay with them throughout the year. I am chastened to recall how very careful I was, every step of those nine months, but how cavalier I have since become.
So, this year, I shall retrieve the Baby’s First Christmas bauble, and hang it up, to remind me that every year is the baby Jesus’s first Christmas. Every year, I should recommit myself to living in detail, because God is in the very smallness of everything we do.
Image Maria, Mary Southard CSJ
Dr Eve Poole is the author of Buying God: Consumerism and theology (SCM Press) and is the Third Church Estates Commissioner. This article was published in The Church Times, 20 December 2019.