Van Ens: Seeking calm during chaotic days
Traveling from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph usually appear carefree in artistic renderings. The gentle swaying of the donkey upon which Mary rides comforts Mary in the late stage of pregnancy. She relaxes, sitting on this gentle beast.
We cannot know if Mary’s mode of transportation was a donkey, however. The biblical account in Luke of what happened that first Christmas reminds readers of the sparse literary style Ernest Hemingway made famous in his novels. Tight sentences free of superlatives tell of the couple’s journey. “Joseph went up … to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem … with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child …” (Luke 2: 4-5).
The Bible does not identify a particular animal that transported Mary. Often there is a thin line separating fact from fiction when determining what occurred on the trip to Bethlehem and how we wish the birth of Jesus turned out. It’s comforting to imagine a donkey befriending Joseph and Mary as they made their way on a wide road as smooth as satin. Similar feelings rise within us when we see an elderly person in a rest home pet a dog trained to calm nerves. Dogs and donkeys make life comfortable and calm.
Did this trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem tax Mary’s and Joseph’s strength and patience? The trip turned their insides upside-down. Their rigorous journey as the crow flies was about 70 miles, taking 4-5 days for a traveler who walked this route. More distant if a hiker took winding roads, stayed in huts along the way and took meandering paths to avoid robbers lurking in ditches near the road. Pregnant Mary had to walk slowly, lest she trip into a pothole on the “washer board” roads that the interplay of wind and rain eroded.
Arriving in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph bumped into merchants hawking wares, like beer-sellers at a baseball game. Streets stayed clogged with travelers eager to find lodging. Tourists had to match exorbitant prices for a room and bid a step higher to reserve it. Noise, dust kicked up in alleys, and rude people jammed narrow corridors. Do you assume Mary and Joseph were calm when an innkeeper offered to crib their baby in a smelly feedbox from which cattle ate?
Still, when chaos upsets us, we long for easy times and manageable problems. The Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” paints a sentimental picture of Jesus’ birth that we intensely desire to accept, even when our longing clashes with what happened. Carolers sing, “All is calm. All is bright.” This carol leaves the impression that the Madonna and her new-born son Jesus enjoyed tranquility in the stable.
When our lives are topsy-turvy, we seek a calm place. “Research shows that psychological distress often causes nostalgia,” writes The Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein. “People tend to experience this sentimental longing for the [all is calm; all is bright] past when they are feeling sad, lonely, anxious or disconnected, or when life feels meaningless or uncertain.”
Chaos breaks our spiritual supply chain. It makes us weary, worn and feeling whipped as we, like Mary and Joseph, make our way to Bethlehem as Christmas approaches. More deaths have already occurred from COVID-19 this year than during the entire 2020 calendar. About a thousand Americans are dying weekly. Very upsetting statistics.
We are anxious because few foresaw this upsetting turn in the road. Last July, we removed our masks, shook hands with friends, ate at restaurants without mandated face coverings, and received vaccinations, then hailed as miracle cures. Like a guerilla fighter disappearing into a forest, the pandemic seemed to retreat, only to reappear and attack us with vengeance.
Even shopping mall Santa Clauses cannot cope with this distress. Few want to slide down our chimneys this Christmas Eve, fearful they might encounter kids who have tested positive. Not many workers want to dress like Santa and talk with crying tykes on their laps. Other jobs with higher pay and less stress appeal to these retired Santas.
During a recent visit to a bank, I read a placard, “Life can throw you curveballs. Be ready for them.” In my younger years as a motivational speaker, I would have edited this caption to read, “When pitched a curve ball, hit it out of the park!”
Easy to rewrite. Difficult to pull off during the chaos COVID-19 spreads.
Pastors preach about embracing the love, hope and joy of Jesus born in Bethlehem. But many of their voices sound thin, not upbeat; worn-out, not vibrant; sounding somber like oboes instead of uplifting like trumpets in the morning.
Episcopal rector Elizabeth Felicetti tells what it feels like in her Virginia parish after riding on her ministry’s bumpy road. Some parishioners are peeved, not calm, because they are required to wear masks in their church. Last year, they griped against mask-wearing because “Big Government’s mandates” messed with their personal liberties. This Christmas season, however, Rector Felicetti made the call on requiring masks. Consequently, she became the critics’ target.
Listen for the angst, the creeping despair as Rev. Felicetti writes of how worn-out she feels. “Colleagues tell me to put my faith in Jesus,” she confides. “That makes me feel horrible as I struggle to find solutions to help us thrive both now and when things are ‘back to normal.’ I am sick of innovating and pivoting and wondering if (the church she serves) is struggling because my faith is not strong enough. When others tell me that forty-seven people have joined their church since the beginning of the pandemic, expletives dance in my head.”
Although frustrated by the controversy over mask wearing, Rev. Felicetti visits the sick, comforts the lonely, feeds the poor and visits families of youngsters who attend Sunday School. Her worries show she cares for parishioners. Her anxieties signal she faithfully serves her parish and rallies worshipers to make the world a better place, even when COVID-19 scares us. Her example beats in rhythm with Christ’s compassionate heart.
Still, her voice is weary. Like a bleating lamb led to the slaughter, a biblical metaphor for Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, she writes, “I worry that we won’t be able to make it through the rest of the pandemic with our differing risk tolerances and approaches to masks. I can’t find a middle way in these times.”
Is the way to Bethlehem a wide, safe avenue offering charming travel and blazing lights? Or does this road run before us as if it were like a batter’s box with a narrow strike zone? The pandemic’s curve balls brush us back and defy our knocking them out of the park.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.