Perplexed

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Luke 1:26-29)

Mary was perplexed at the angel’s greeting. Personally, I would have been perplexed to find myself speaking with an angel.

Of course, it’s possible, the angel appeared in human guise. That’s not outside the realm of possibility. A popular television show, “Touched by an Angel,” chose that approach, and God does have a tendency to use themes in his creation. Horse, donkey, zebra — different, but with evident commonalities. Lion, tiger, domestic house cat — different, but with similar characteristics. It’s entirely possible that when angels make their presence known, they look enough like us to be indistinguishable from us.

If that were the case, the greeting would have been perplexing. If, during an ordinary day, when I was about my ordinary business, a stranger greeted me by saying, “The Lord is with you,” I would feel a shimmer of disconnect. I hear a similar phrase when I attend Mass — “The Lord be with you” — but that’s part of the liturgy, and doesn’t set me apart from others who worship. To hear it not as part of a liturgical prayer, but as a statement of fact would be disconcerting.

The Lord is with me? Why? Why me and how do you know? Yet, during this Christmas season, isn’t that the message angels bring each of us? The Lord is with you.

We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born; his birth wasn’t registered at the local courthouse with parents identified and attending physician noted. We celebrate shortly after the winter solstice because, for us, he is the light which shines in the darkness, a light not overcome by that darkness (Cf. John 1:5). It makes sense that we would name clearly what ancients only intuited and celebrated by other names.

However, none of us can fully grasp the mystery of God with us in a newborn child. We can’t even grasp the mystery of wonder we feel when our children are born, when we hold our grandchildren for the first time, when we see a stranger’s child in the grocery store. Something within us — spontaneously, without intent or choice — honors the miracle of that child’s life and inherent dignity. We are drawn to the hope each child signifies; God is not done with us.

Jesus — who would die for us and rise again to show us death is not the end — entered this world in exactly the same way, as a newborn child. We are told there was no room at the inn, but I suspect that was a euphemism rather than the literal truth. Joseph would have had relatives in Bethlehem, but his betrothed — a very pregnant Mary, who would undoubtedly have been condemned by gossip as an adulteress, even if Joseph did not put her aside — would not have been welcome in any “decent” home.

The innkeeper had probably been apprised of the situation and discouraged from taking them in. I wonder if it was the innkeeper who had a heart, or if it was his wife. I wonder which of them said, “Maybe we can’t give them shelter inside, but we can’t turn them away, either. It just isn’t right, especially with that young woman being so close to her time.”

And so it was that Jesus came to be born in a stable, as an outcast. But God was so proud of his plan unfolding, so proud of the son born into the world, so proud of the way generations would be transformed by that pivotal moment in time, he made the announcement to those who would listen — shepherds who kept watch by night. They believed, as do all of us who know the darkness and long for the light.

Not one of us has lived without suffering. We all can name a loss, a disappointment, a closed door, a death, that changed us irrevocably. But, unless we are still in the midst of our grief, we know the suffering, in time, eases. We know that morning follows the darkest of nights. We know a day will come when we are no longer suffocated by pain, and can take a deep breath again. That is God with us. That is the child coming into our hearts as he came into the world.

But his birth was not just a metaphor, it was a reality. His mother felt the crushing pain of contractions and spread her legs so that Jesus could slip from God’s dream for us into the world he created for us, a world in which we are shaped by choice and chance, by his hand working through the natural order of things and our responses to them. We can be like the relatives who did not make the child welcome, like the innkeeper who found a place — not an ideal place, but a place nevertheless — for the child, or we can be like the shepherds who put aside what they were doing and sought him.

When we hear the proclamation, ‘The Lord is with you,’ we have that choice. Which do we chose?

What did I do?

Once upon a time — somewhere between the evangelical Christianity I embraced when I was in my late teens and the Catholicism which is my current spiritual path — I studied Zen Buddhism for a while. Parts of it stuck — fit rather nicely, in fact, with the mysticism which is part of the Catholic spiritual tradition.

Other parts I haven’t thought about in years. Karma — the Eastern version of “you reap what you sow” — fits in the latter category. But with the way my holiday trip to visit the grandest of twin girls (and their parents) is going, I have to wonder what god I angered.

My misadventures actually began shortly before Christmas. I volunteered to work on Christmas Day, both because I wanted the moms with young children to be home with their families and because the holiday pay would come in handy since I knew I’d be missing a week of work. (It actually will be more than that because at the last minute the owners decided to close for about 15 hours, and the two employees affected were desperatedly in need of the income they lost, so I gave them some of my hours in compensation.)

However, though I volunteered to work on Christmas Day, I had no intention of treating the day like any other. I decided to bake cookies to give to customers. I started by mixing oatmeal cookies with coconut and chocolate chips. The dough had to be refrigerated, and I failed to resist the temptation to sample it. I bit down on a chilled chocolate chip and broke a tooth — a week before my dental insurance kicks in and at a time when Custer (and most professional offices in the area) were closed for an extended weekend. As a result, I’ve discovered a new diet plan — eating very, VERY slowly — and Oragel’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, it’s only to be used four times a day.

Fate ended up having the last laugh regarding that. Both my niece and one of my brothers brought me Christmas goodies which my trip would prevent me from enjoying, so I shared them with customers on Christmas Day and my oatmeal cookies were frozen after baking for later consumption. In fact, the only cookies I contributed to my goodie tray for work were a few spritz (the old-fashioned, high cholesterol version with real butter and egg yolks, that melt in your mouth).

On Christmas Day, I planned to visit my 95-year-old neighbor who doesn’t get out much but has a sharp mind and is a delightful companion. Unfortunately, I had to go into work early to do some bookkeeping and didn’t get out of church as expected because poor road conditions delayed our priest (who serves three far-flung parishes in Western South Dakota) so that Mass started late. Because I couldn’t leave for a week-long trip without visiting her, my to-do list for yesterday was lengthened.

That, and an impulsively-made decision to apply for a position with the diocese, delayed my departure so that I wasn’t able to go to a movie with Katie as planned. In all honesty, I must blame myself for that. I’m the kind of person who needs to clean the house and do the laundry before taking a trip. If I wasn’t so obsessive about leaving my home in order, I probably could have left before the roads started freezing. As it was, I not only missed the movie, but was also negotiating winding mountain roads at dusk at 45 miles per hour.

Before going to my niece’s home, where I spent the night so that I could catch my early-morning flight, I made an emergency gift stop. I had with me a small blanket for Avery since I will need to fix “Yellow,” the knitted blanket with which she’s slept since she was born, but I had nothing for Paige. At the store I was struck with the brilliant scheme of getting the girls some fingerpaints. For some reason, I thought the cut-off size for liquids and gels in carry-on luggage was four ounces. I was wrong — it was three, so the paints remain behind, (but I do have a cute bear for Paige in my backpack).

While Katie was able to get me to the airport in ample time this morning, a mechanical problem — the toilet didn’t work — delayed the flight so that I missed my connecting flight in Denver. At present, I’m sitting in a small alcove, sipping a strawberry smoothie because it requires no chewing (despite the sign that says “NO food or drink”), writing this, wondering how to kill another five hours before the flight upon which I — Sara, actually — was lucky enough to get a seat, and wondering what I’ve done to merit this series of misadventures.

I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Tomorrow, I’ll see my darling girls and will undoubtely forget all these little frustrations. It’s amazing how the smiles of grandchildren can erase any number of woes!