Three months ago, we moved to a new city and into a new house. We had seen the house once before, but after a few weeks I realized something we hadn’t noticed in our walk-through — we lived near a busy road, and the loud engines of southern trucks and motorcycles were more than noticeable throughout the day.
While this may not seem like that big of a deal, I was distraught. How had I not thought to pay more attention to noise? How did I miss this? My perfectionism and anxiety got the best of me, and I totally lost my peace about a move and home that seemed so ordained and blessed.
Time, therapy and some healing prayer helped restore my sanity, and now I love our home. But in this Advent season, as I reflect on a month that ended up harder than it needed to be, I can’t help but think of the chaos Mary and Joseph experienced as they prepared for one of their biggest transitions — welcoming God made man into the world.
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A myriad of stressful circumstances — traveling by donkey to an unfamiliar town with no lodging at the end of a pregnancy, much less a pregnancy with God himself — followed Mary and Joseph. I’m sure any one of those things would be enough to steal my peace. And yet we get no indication that Mary and Joseph were anything but trusting in the midst of their external circumstances.
So, we can wonder to ourselves, how do we maintain the peace and trust of the Holy Family in our lives and, in particular, this Christmas season? We can look at how they directed their hearts to give us a clue to where our hearts can also be directed.
Trust in the promise
Mary and Joseph were compelled by the law to travel to Bethlehem, Joseph’s homeland, for the census declared by Caesar Augustus. Of course, Mary and Joseph knew the prophecies about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem and the reality of who was in Mary’s womb. I can only imagine the laughter in Mary’s heart when she heard the news about the census.
Mary didn’t necessarily have to go with Joseph on the journey, but the timing was too perfect. In his book “To Know Christ Jesus,” Frank Sheed draws us into the beauty of this divine appointment. He concludes that Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah would have studied the Scriptures arduously when Mary went to be with her cousin, who was awaiting the birth of her own miracle son, and that this study would have truly allowed Mary to know the gravity of the situation unfolding before her.
Was it confirming for Mary when she heard the Magi had come from the East asking where they could find the king? When they arrived at her place of lodging, worshiped the infant Jesus and left him gifts of gold for a king, frankincense used for offerings to a god, and myrrh for a burial, did her heart continue to connect all of the dots?
Just because the stars (or star, for that matter) seemed to be aligning, I don’t think it’s fair to Mary and Joseph’s humanity to assume they were peachy about the whole situation. But even if they felt scared, confused and alone, they trusted. And that’s what we’ll explore next.
Peace no matter their circumstances
According to Sheed, the journey to Bethlehem would have been about four days. If you’ve ever been pregnant before, you know that sitting on a donkey days before you go into labor for four minutes, much less days, is not ideal. But Mary knew that this journey was part of God’s great plan for her and her family.
The Holy Family didn’t have their home or many of their possessions in Bethlehem. They didn’t have comfort. They didn’t know what was coming. All they knew was that a good God had invited them to trust in where he led them and that all of this was a part of his plan.
In our lives, too, we are invited to trust in God’s good plan despite, and sometimes in spite of, our external circumstances. Trust doesn’t look like blind obedience, silent submission or constant bubbly joy. It looks like riding a donkey to Bethlehem at the end of a pregnancy and giving birth in a cave. It looks like regular prayer and discernment, honesty with God about the status of our hearts, and moving with true peace, rather than just emotions.
Sometimes, to others, trust looks like foolishness. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to match our circumstances. But if God is asking, then it is worth it to say yes.
Closeness to God
When I was a FOCUS missionary, I remember being told that simply placing ourselves in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament changes us in ways we can’t begin to comprehend. In the same way that our skin is warmed and bronzed by being in the sun, our souls are sanctified when we sit before Our Lord. I can only imagine how much more true this was of Joseph being in the presence of the tabernacle of Mary, who housed within her Jesus himself.
God doesn’t ask us to feel him, to have emotional highs during prayer, or to blindly love everything he asks of us. What he does ask is that we stay close to him and, through the closeness, learn to trust. Like his plea to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemani to keep watch with him, he wants to be near to us.
Mary and Joseph had this great gift the night of the Nativity. But the crazy thing is that we have the same gift. We have the same Jesus who was born of Mary, the same Jesus who was wrapped in swaddling clothes, the same Jesus who was laid in the manger. The same Jesus who cried for his mother and nursed at her breast, who was circumcised, who was worshiped by shepherds and Magi alike. We have that same Jesus every day in a small gold box in every church. And he wants to be close to us.
The Holy Family had a lot going against them at the time when Jesus was to be born. It’s easy to miss considering our spruced-up renditions that often do little to acknowledge their challenging circumstances. However, in spite of it all, God’s plan was fulfilled and Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, thus fulfilling the great plan written in Jewish history that preceded this event. And the beautiful thing is that God’s plan for us, written within the story of his son, is just as beautiful.
It feels silly to say that Jesus healed me of my preoccupation with my loud road, but that’s what he did. Through processing in therapy and a lovely woman with the gift of healing, I was able to recount a memory from my childhood that was at the root of my deepest problem with my noisy road — that I was a fool and that it was only a matter of time before I was found out.
We prayed through this memory and Jesus did some miraculous work. When I went back home, I responded to every noisy engine with, “Jesus, I love you,” and was reminded of the healing he gifted me. I still hear the noise, and it still bothers me from time to time, but I am no longer enslaved but free.
This freedom, the freedom that Mary and Joseph had in their mission of bringing God into the world, is what I want to have always. The freedom that trusts in God’s promises. The freedom not determined by my circumstances. The freedom that can only come from a closeness to God. And it’s the freedom he wants for you, too.