Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. So goes the refrain. Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation. Gloria in excelsis Deo. The songs are familiar, perhaps too familiar. We sing them without thinking. We hear angelic choirs and forget that this is only half of the story. Certainly the Holy Family were unique, but we will miss the meaning of Christmas if we forget that, in so many ways, they were so ordinary.
I think of Mary and picture my mother. I was born two months early, while my parents were traveling. That was more than forty years ago, yet I can still hear anxiety in my mother's voice when she speaks of it. My wife and I awaited our own children with hope and joy, but also with nervousness, even a little fear. How could it be otherwise? Imagine Mary, perhaps seventeen years old, feeling the first pains of labor, far from home.
I think of Joseph, knowing that he needs to find a place for his young wife, and picture my father. He is lost in a strange city, looking for the hospital. He doesn't know that, in that place, North Main Street runs parallel to Main Street. My mother waits in the car while he stops at an all-night laundromat for directions. Perhaps he trusted in the Lord to help us. I doubt he found much relief in the moment, though.
So often we picture baby Jesus as a symbol from a medieval painting: a miniature adult, hands raised in benediction, but it was not like that. Put that image aside and picture instead a real newborn. His eyes are closed. His hands are tiny. He grasps your finger and squeezes. He is warm and soft. He is completely helpless.
See Mary bring him close to her face. She glows, not with the gilded halo of an artist's brush, but with the soft radiance of a new mother. Her brow shines with sweat. She is tired. Joseph sits nearby. He is not caught up in some mystic vision. He is fascinated by the miracle of new life in Mary's arms. They are at peace. A child is born and all is well. They do not know how the story ends.
Most of us know what it is like to prepare for a newborn. We shop, we paint, we set up a crib. Perhaps we are showered with gifts. Each passing generation seems to need more things for its children. Certainly, the marketers would have it so. They would love us to forget that things really matter very little. After all, babies have been born for thousands of years under all sorts of circumstances. Most of them did just fine, with or without things. A baby born in the African bush a thousand years ago was no different from one born in City Hospital yesterday.
It is actually rather easy to prepare the things a baby needs. Keeping a baby warm, dry and fed covers quite a bit, no matter what the retailers say. It is far harder to prepare room in your heart. That is what truly matters: to receive a child into the world with as much love as you can find. Not the child you imagined, but the real one. This is difficult. Real babies are demanding. They disrupt our lives. They call us when we do not expect. We are not even sure what they want of us sometimes. Yet we are called to love them, to serve them, to find more love than we ever thought we had and give it to them. Real love is not something out of a storybook. Real love is hard, but it is the only path to joy.
St. John tells us that God is love. Of course, God could only be real love, for God is also truth. Real love is hard. It is not some vague, warm feeling of good-will. It makes demands on us. It calls us to go beyond ourselves. Real love requires us to show love, to act in a loving way, regardless of how we feel. Mother Teresa said the fruit of love is service. This is how we may know our love is real, by its fruits.
It is a mistake to picture the Holy Family in supernatural serenity. It takes nothing away from them to give them their full humanity. We know how the story ends. The Christ who was not spared the Agony almost certainly cried in the manger. All babies cry. Yet, for most of us, this cry calls us to love them more.
Picture the Christ-child once more. The squeezed-shut eyes, the wispy hair, that peculiar baby-sweet scent. The tiny hands and tinier fingers. Feel the bird-light ribs and too-fast heartbeat. This is what it was. This is how he chose to appear. Truly, the baby in the manger is a far greater wonder than angels in the sky. Of course there was no room at the inn. He who was sent to be joy to the world was rejected by the world from the beginning. There could never be room at the inn for him. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. Gloria in excelsis Deo.