Christmas is full of stories. And of course, the original Christmas story is perhaps the richest of all. I neither practice nor profess any religion, so this column is not doctrinaire or evangelical in any way. Whether one believes in the literal or religious truth of the Christmas story or not, it remains a powerful and influential tale, obviously for Christians, but even for many non-Christians. Over the years, as the Yuletide celebration commences, I have often discovered new ideas in this simple yet profound tale. This year, the story of the nativity has helped me understand something about what is important for community.
As the Christmas story speaks to me this year, the manger itself plays a central role. Humility has always been prominent in all aspects of the story of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are not famous people, and Joseph is a tradesman (a carpenter, or more generally a maker of objects, a profession that Jesus himself takes up). Although he becomes a preacher — and a very humble one at that, living in simplicity and poverty — Jesus is said never to have claimed himself to be the son of God. And in the Christmas story itself, humility veers toward humiliation as the expectant Mary and her husband, Joseph, are turned away at the inn, provided with only a spot in a barn to sleep and, as it turns out, give birth in. The only place to lay the newborn child in is in a feed trough (a manger).
What strikes me this year about this story is not so much the primitive conditions themselves as the fact that something so profound is happening in a virtually unknown and unseen corner. All kinds of “big, important things” are happening in the greater world. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem because the big, important Roman emperor Caesar Augustus has ordered a census of the entire flamin’ Roman Empire, fergoshsakes (or, as it says in the Gospel of Luke, “all the world”). In the midst of all this hubbub — which ultimately has not even a minuscule effect on our lives today — something really important is happening (and to Christians, the most important thing that ever happened, outside of the resurrection). And it’s happening over there — in that stable — where no one is looking, where a woman is nursing a newborn amidst barn animals and feeding troughs.
Even the angels get in on the act. The son of God is born, and who do they tell? Who comes to adore the new child? Shepherds out in the fields. Even in the one Gospel (Matthew) that tells of the magi or wise men (not kings), those big shots don’t show up until later, long after the new family has left the stable, and they don’t even quite get the direct invitation the angels gave to the “lowly” shepherds.
It’s this “hey, look what’s happening over here” aspect of the Christmas story that speaks to me this year, and that’s an important lesson for all of us to remember about ourselves and our community. Yes, I am grateful to and respect our well-known community leaders, official and otherwise, who are doing important things for our local area. Their work is not to be diminished. But amidst all the real estate developments, historic preservation policies, affordable housing efforts, TIFs, literary awards, Trader Joe’s openings and so many other “big deals,” really, really important things (maybe more important things) are also happening “hey, over there” — in the small businesses that don’t make the headlines, in the workshops in basements or garages, in the writings and artistic creations of many people you’ve never heard of, in the small acts of kindness we extend to others each day, in the everyday lives of individuals and families in their homes and workplaces. In the end, it is everyday people and everyday activity that constitute the strength and character of a community.
Maybe someday, a “big deal” will emerge from those humble places that no one was paying attention to — and who knows, maybe even save the world. But in the meantime, what we’re all doing every day remains important, even profound, to our whole community. It is community, really. So this Christmas season, if you’re celebrating it (and even if you’re not), take at least a few moments to cherish all the seemingly small people and all the seemingly small things we do that are happening “hey, over there,” wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Thomas Dean says Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Solstice Greetings or whatever makes others happy and respects them at this time of year. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 233.