This was my favorite day of the year when I was little. The greatest Christmases took place at my grandparents’ huge house in the piney woods of East Texas, and I know I’ve written about the sensory memories of that…the cold, the smell of the frost on the ground, the candlelight church service where I sat packed into a pew with all my cousins…then the sleepless, trembling excitement of Christmas Eve, listening for Santa Claus, waiting for morning in a big bed with four other girls, none of which could sleep either.
My son will have similar memories. He’s currently reveling in the experience of a Massachusetts Christmas at Mimi’s house, complete with three types of cookies, sleepovers with cousins, and watching Christmas movies in bathrobes. As the muppets say, “a part of childhood we’ll always remember…”
(Have you guys seen Muppet Christmas Carol? It’s catchy and brilliant and sincere, and if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and go watch it.)
Anyway, my third graders are hopefully making merry right now, as are the kids we teach in Sunday School. They’ve done all the work they need to do until January, and they’ve earned a break from me.
But I’m going to leave you with this question one of them asked me…
“Do you think the shepherds touched Jesus? Did Mary let them?”
I was stumped. I had no idea.
“I don’t know…,” I had to confess. “Maybe not…she was worried about…”
About what? About germs? People weren’t really cognizant of germs in the ancient world. “I mean, she didn’t know them,” I stumbled…
But they knew HIM—they’d been sent there by an invading army of angels with thundering voices, they knew exactly who He was. Wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
I asked my husband, the Bible scholar, about ‘uncleanness’ for people working with animals. There were rules about who could and couldn’t come into the temple, so maybe Mary was worried about that? But then, a woman who’s just given birth was also ritually unclean. And, I mean, he’s already in a feeding trough for animals, so…
When I read the Christmas story to my kids, I explained that Mary put Jesus in a food trough—there might be animal spit. “I don’t like that,” one of the boys confessed, concern on his brow. “I don’t like him being there-there must’ve been a better place.”
“Well, God planned it that way,” I reminded him.
(Have you read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever? Imogene Herdman can’t handle the idea of there being no room for Jesus. Joseph should’ve beaten everybody up, she concludes. What kind of a husband accepts that kind of treatment, “and her pregnant and all…” There’s a TV movie version out there too. Go watch it, then come back.)
But maybe I’m on the wrong track with this ‘uncleanness’ idea. My husband reminds me that anyone who touched Jesus would be clean…that’s why people were constantly trying. Women stooping down in the street to touch his tassels were healed, men dying of leprosy were cleansed at a word, middle-school girls were raised from the dead when He came to their bedside…
And of course, all of us made clean every Sunday with His body and blood in our dirty, germ-covered hands… “Behold, the lamb of God…behold Him who takes away the sins of the world…”
“I bet she let them,” I finally concluded. “Because she knew He was for all people.”
That’s what the teenage actress in the Nativity movie with Ciaran Hinds says. If you haven’t watched that yet, go do that right now. Then keep reading. (You see why my kids need a two-week break from me?)
Anyway, it’s true—He didn’t come to be clean and safe. He didn’t come to be protected. Mary’s soul was going to be pierced by it, by the way we would treat her boy. Everyone would want a piece of Him. Everyone would have an opinion, everybody would have stones to throw and questions that were secretly accusations.
So when you think about it, why not let the shepherds touch Him? They were there to see Him, to worship Him, to adore Him. And I’ve written this before, but some scholars think they might’ve been kids. That would explain their response. And that’s what all those Christmas songs are about…”Little Drummer Boy”, “The Friendly Beasts”…the desire to get as close to Him as possible, not despite your grimy unworthiness, but because of it. I hope Mary let them touch Him. I hope she was ok with them stroking his little cheek and kissing his forehead. I hope it was one of the things she treasured up and pondered in her heart after He’d been torn to pieces, wrapped in cloths, and laid in a hole in a rock.
Merry Christmas, team. Now come, let us adore Him.