The greeting cards have all been sent. The gifts have all been unwrapped. The colored lights have been packed away. The feast has been consumed and the tins of cookies are now empty. The radio has ended its nonstop carols. The Nativity has been removed from the mantle. This is the first week of ordinary time. What's next?
On the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph experienced an extraordinary experience. They traveled to a foreign city and gave birth to a baby in a barn. Shepherds visited them with stories of a multitude of angels singing in the skies and wise men from a distant land gave them exotic gifts. The story of their baby's birth was spectacular, but eventually they returned home to an ordinary existence in Nazareth. What's next?
Several years ago, my wife and were in the hospital with our first newborn baby. We had visitors coming in and out of our postpartum room every day. We received gifts of outfits, toys, and blankets for the newborn child. People cooked us dinners and took countless pictures of our new bundle of joy. Eventually the time came to return home to our new ordinary life. What's next?
As we drove home with my first newborn daughter, we excitedly recounted the stories of the delivery and of the joy we shared with our visitors. We pulled in the driveway, got out the camera, and filmed ourselves carrying our daughter into her new home for the first time. As we walked into the house, I was caught on film calling my daughter by the wrong name, instead using her cousin's name. I carried her into the house, brought her into her new bedroom, and laid her on the changing table for her first diaper change. Less than three minutes after arriving in her new home, she peed while her diaper was off in an arc through the air and into a puddle on the changing table. The extraordinary birth quickly gave way to the new ordinary.
When we brought home our new baby, our lives were changed forever. With the initial joy and excitement of the birth behind us, we needed to adjust to a new ordinary time in our lives which was oriented around the new life we had welcomed into our home. While there was a continuity with our lives before the birth, our lives after the birth were radically different because of this new life. Sometimes I like to measure my years as BC (Before Children) and AD (After Delivery). Many of our old habits needed to be replaced with new habits as the baby required a significant amount of our time. Date nights were often replaced by sleepless nights. Snuggling together on the couch was replaced with rocking the baby. Cooking fancy dinners was replaced with bottles and nursing. My shirts were stained with spit up and we carried a diaper bag nearly everywhere we went. Where people used to greet me when I walked into the room, people now walked right past me to greet the baby instead. The house was baby-proofed, and the floor was covered with toys and Cheerios. Our hearts were stretched wider than we thought possible. Our lives underwent a radical transformation with this child at the center. When I went to work, I was conscious that I was earning money to support this child. When we went on a date, I was conscious that our love helped to create this child. When we gathered with family, I was conscious that we had introduced the next generation of the family. My identity changed from being a man and a husband to now being a father as well.
I imagine Mary and Joseph must have experienced a similar radical transformation in their lives when they brought the baby Jesus home to Nazareth. While they had welcomed a joy to the world, I suspect they didn't experience many silent nights with a newborn baby in the house. I wonder how Joseph's awareness that he was providing for Jesus and perhaps how teaching Jesus the trade changed the way Joseph worked in the carpenter's shop. Scripture tells us that Mary pondered her experiences in her heart. Bringing Jesus into their home changed the way they lived their ordinary lives forever. While they may not have had Cheerios spread across the floor back then and they probably didn't complete paperwork for FMLA in the weeks after Jesus' birth, they probably had many other experiences of parenting a newborn baby in common with my wife and me.
The reality of Christmas should similarly change our lives to be reoriented with Christ at the center. In the Christmas season we celebrated Christ entering our lives and we took time to ponder the experience of Christ in our hearts. If parents brought home a baby, set the baby in the corner on the shelf, and went on with their lives as if nothing had changed, the new life they had welcomed would quickly fade. If we take down the tree and pack Christmas in boxes in the basement and leave our awareness of Christ's presence in our lives with the boxes in the basement, then the life of Christ will quickly fade from our lives. Our habits need to change in response to our relationship with Christ. We may need to break sinful habits that are not conducive to life with the Christ child in our homes, workplaces, or schools. Our love for our family and friends should be conformed to Christ's love for us. We need to frequently remind ourselves of Christ's presence, so we remain conscious of our faith at work, in our relationships, and with our families. Because of Christmas, my identity is shaped not just by being a man, a husband, and a father but by being a son of God as well.
Our bodies couldn't handle feasting every day like it was Christmas and our wallets couldn't handle gifting every day like it was Christmas. Sooner or later we must begin ordinary time again. Nevertheless, ordinary time is not the time when Christ's presence is forgotten until the next liturgical season. Rather, it is the time when Christ's presence is integrated into our ordinary, daily experiences. Christ is always present in our lives. The Christmas season was a special time to remind ourselves of this reality and to prompt us to integrate this reality more deeply in our lives as we reenter ordinary time. That's what's next!