There is one story from the scriptural account of Jesus’ life that haunts and troubles me, like a Zen koan–the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus. It is a good story and a useful corrective to (Mormon) women’s tendency to privilege the meeting of others’ physical needs (real or imagined) over the sating of their own spiritual hunger. And yet I find myself wanting to defend Martha from the Savior’s gentle rebuke. Particularly at Christmas, I’m inclined to assert the value of hustling and bustling and busy-ness.
If our church services hadn’t been snowed out Sunday, it’s likely there would have been talks decrying the commercialization of Christmas, urging more thought about the reason for the season, pleading for a return to the simplicity and wonder of Christmases past. “Keep Christ in Christmas,” pundits urge, fearing, perhaps, that God might be outmuscled by Santa Claus. To all of this well-intentioned sermonizing, I say bah! humbug.
At Christmastime, we long for the kind of simplicity Thoreau achieved at Walden Pond with his mother dropping in daily to bring him food and clean laundry (!) (!!) Those Norman Rockwell scenes of contented, well-scrubbed families at church or around the table–the pictures we invoke to remind us of the “real” meaning of Christmas–they require a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by someone! (Even the paintings of the stable where Jesus was born suggest that a great deal of cleaning had occurred before the poses were struck). My least favorite part of the season is the well-intentioned (often male) voices urging us to keep our celebration simple, to not “overdo”, to slow down. This message creates yet another impossible double bind for women, who now feel pressure to make a magic, wonder-filled holiday for their families AND make it look easy. It is not easy, and there’s no sense pretending that it could be. Ordinary housekeeping and cooking and childcare are plenty of work; the imperative of extra-special homey-ness and glitter for the holidays inevitably makes more work. But, as Kahlil Gibran says so perfectly, “work is love made visible.”
The spirit of Martha broods over the holidays, a troubled ghost yearning for Jesus as much as her contemplative sister, pouring her love into cookies and trinkets and overwrought centerpieces. Her work is unnecessary only when it is unappreciated, redeemed when it is received with the gratitude due all lovingly intended gifts. Work joyfully undertaken and happily received is among the deepest satisfactions of human existence. Loving those around us will, of necessity, entail being “careful and troubled” about some things, at least. Perhaps Jesus’ words to Martha were less rebuke than acknowledgment. Perhaps we would have seen, if we had been there when he spoke those words, his great love and tender gratitude for her fussy gifts, and his yearning to give her that which he had to give which could only be received after the hustle and bustle were through.
I would like to think it was so. Part of the wonder of the scene at the creche is the image of the baby patiently receiving the wise men’s ridiculous gifts. Surely they were no good to him, but they were good for the givers. There’s a beautiful Welsh carol called “Poverty,” that runs through my head most Christmastimes:
All poor men and humble,
All lame men who stumble,
Come haste ye, nor feel ye afraid.
For Jesus, our treasure,
With love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
Laid rich gifts around him,
Yet oxen they gave him their hay,
And Jesus in beauty
Accepted their duty.
Contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
The praises we owe him:
Our service he ne’er can despise,
Whose love still is able
To show us that stable,
Where lowly in manger he lies.
All of our gifts, even the ones that are well-intentioned but too costly in money or time, the gaudy ones, the ugly leftovers from the last-minute dash to the mall–all are redeemed in the warm gaze of the baby Christ who patiently receives them. After all, most of our human service is pretty feeble, and yet, even that, “he ne’er can despise.” The very promise of Christmas is “Emmanuel, God with us.” He came to earth to demonstrate that he is with us, in and through and below all human need and frailty, greed and sin, shallow busy-ness and noisy ignorance. In a stable, in the kitchen frosting the 156th gingerbread cookie, perhaps even at the mall.