God with Us

The Christmas rat. (photo by Kevin D. Hendricks)

The following is a story I wrote to read at my youth group’s Christmas recital. I tried publishing it a few places just for the heck of it, but so far no luck (UPDATE: Though it sounds like Relevant Magazine will be publishing an edited version on Christmas Eve). So here it is.

Christmas has never made much sense to me. It centers on the little baby Jesus, born into a world of nothing, so we celebrate with overabundance, presents and goodies and decorations festooning every nook and cranny starting the day after Halloween. We’re over-compensating for the whole manger thing, hoping Jesus won’t hold it against us.

In reality, that first Christmas so long ago wasn’t the saccharine scene we see depicted on Christmas cards, where a dank and drafty hut looks positively homey. That first Christmas wasn’t clean and polished, and if it happened today no one would notice.

Imagine Mary and Joseph, youth group alums getting married in college. Maybe Mary is 19 and Joseph is 21, incredibly young, but not irresponsible. They’re the excessively cute, engaged couple, wearing matching sweaters and registering at Target. They’re excited and eager and scared all at once.

But then the bride is pregnant, the husband-to-be floored. There’s talk of visions and dreams that the family tries to keep quiet, but everyone knows. It’s an episode of Jerry Springer, and the unrepentant Mary — holding her head high and spouting about the Messiah — is shipped off to stay with her cousin –- the older, wiser, pregnant-after-she’s-married cousin, leaving Joseph behind. The big day is forgotten in a cloud of shame.

Despite what everyone says, Joseph knows they didn’t shack-up. His fiance is either a slut or crazy. He’s not sure which one’s worse, until an eerie nighttime visitor gives him a third option -– he’s the crazy one.

In the midst of all the gossip and leering eyes, Joseph comes to Mary’s defense, not exactly touting her Savior story, but not denying it either. Mom and Dad wish they’d just fess up, and all could be forgiven, but Mary clinging to her true-love-waits card in the third trimester is a bit much.

When a Draconian government edict requires them to be home for the holidays, pregnant and all, they huddle into Joseph’s sputtering college car and shuttle across the country. They roll into town too late, the hospitals crowded, the doctors out of town, the inns overbooked.

It doesn’t matter anyway, since this severely pregnant woman gets scorn, not sympathy. It’s obvious she’s not the chaste virgin she claims to be, and with Joseph by her side he’s either too forgiving or guilty as well. This is their mess, let them clean it up.

With no one to take them in, not even insurance to secure a hospital bed, they wander through the streets. The homeless shelter must have been full, and the church locked for the night. In the end Mary and Joseph curled up in an alley, next to a dumpster and a garbage can, to bring the Savior into the world.

The young mother is scared, she screams and cries out into the darkness. There’s no epidural in an alley. A rat looks on. Joseph does all he can to midwife the child. He’s seeing a part of his wife he was not yet supposed to see, and is clinging to the hope that she’s not crazy, that he’s not crazy, that this baby is actually more than everyone says.

The baby is finally born and Mary crumbles in a heap. Joseph cuts the umbilical cord cut with his pocketknife and wraps the child in old newspapers. This is our Messiah. A back-alley baby, just as well aborted or left in the dumpster.

But this isn’t the end of our sordid tale. Late in the night transients come and look on, the kind of riffraff that ask for change in parking lots with elaborate stories about needing bus fare to North Dakota. Mary can smell the alcohol on their breath, but they don’t ask for a hand out. They ask to hold the baby. They pat Joseph on the back and head out into the night, singing together in their semi-drunken stupor.

Next comes a crowd of foreigners, immigrants who barely speak English. They look like 9/11 hijackers, and rather than useful gifts like blankets, diapers, or even a onesie, they bring odd knickknacks from their homeland, the kind of present you’d bring to a state dinner, not a baby shower. In broken English one of them says grand things about the baby, something about a majestic king and a new era. The new mom and dad look at the Star Tribune covering their child and their delivery room alley, and they can’t help but wonder who’s crazy now.

Morning comes and the bewildered trailer park family moves on, to raise their child under the watchful eye of people who call him a bastard, a child of sin, and look down with derision.

That is the birth we celebrate with fat Santas and gifts and cookies, frosted electric red and green. That is why we string tacky lights, hang greens, and wish one another a Merry Christmas. All because of an illegitimate child born in the streets.

Years and years after that hapless family pulled together, miles away from the bloodstained alley where it all began and the leers of gossipy neighbors, that bastard child flipped tables at the church potluck, and had dinner with homosexuals and HIV-victims. He gathered a gang of truck drivers and gas station clerks, even an IRS agent and a prostitute, touting them around while he insulted the bishop and walked across the Mississippi.

That back-alley baby stepped on one too many toes. They falsified some evidence, found a loophole, and ramrodded him through the courts. A jury of his peers approved of his guilt, and in the end they send 1,000 volts coursing through his body. It was finished.

So raise your hands, and let’s sing a song of the dumpster baby, adored by hookers and terrorists. Let’s frost a rat-shaped cookie and hang some trash on the front door, to commemorate that back-alley birth. This is your Savior, the Christ-child, and the story of an implausible Christmas that gives new meaning to the phrase God with us.

2 thoughts on “God with Us”

  1. “The angels are singing over the plains. The shepherds are quaking, echoing refrains. And all of our slogans, designed to take away the pain, meant nothing to the Son of God that night in Bethlehem.”

    -Roper of FIF

    Your article touched me and re-opened my eyes. Thank you. (It also brings to mind Brave Saint’s “Under Bridges”…)

  2. that’s a really sweet article, i’ve seen a lot of poor shots @ modernizing bible stories but you nailed this one.

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