December 23, 2014
My dear Family and Friends,
It’s that time again, as the calendar is turning, when we take a moment to stop, look at, and acknowledge the past year: what happened, where, who it happened with, and conclude, usually via email, with an eloquent summation like, “Gee whizz, wasn’t 2014 something!” Then quick hugs and off we go for the next 365.
No offense and probably no surprise, but I’ve decided to uphold my reputation as a non-conformist and side-step that tradition again this year. Recaps are 20th Century anyway as social media now tells everything about everybody almost before it happens. Since the beginning of December, I’ve been fishing around for a theme for this year’s missive (theme may sound snooty but my writer brain won’t kick over without one, sorry). Despite a year jam-packed with events of import, no over-arching thesis appropriate for the holiday season seemed to be jelling—until this very morning (Dec. 23), when, following some breadcrumbs dropped by recent contemplations, I happened upon a monumental hole in the traditional recounting of Jesus’ birth:
WHERE ARE THE GRANDPARENTS IN THE CHRISTMAS STORY?
And before you young ‘uns skitter past this question as one only for old fogies (or whatever term of endearment you use for your elders), listen up. Someday, if you’re lucky, your hair will be as gray, you limbs as creaky, and your memories as flighty, as ours. So there! (I once had a partner, best left unidentified, who couldn’t wait to get old so she could take her handbag and smack the heads of all the stupid people around her—and get away with it. Don’t know how that turned out.)
But back to the stable in Bethlehem. Of course, the animals were there, perhaps too many cows and mules and too few dogs and kitties for current taste—oh, well. And shepherds to represent the tough young working studs, although few of those nowadays spend their nights watching sheep on hillsides—but the idea is there. And, fashionably late are the wise men on camels with really expensive gifts, three of them to over-represent the 1%–some things don’t change. And there are angels; I like to view them as including the spirits of those who have been here and made it to the beyond, but take it upon themselves to return on occasion to remind us about ideas like “peace on earth” that we are usually too busy to keep in mind.
Zeroing in now on the main event. Of course, the newborn baby, the youngest generation, is rightly front and center. For the second year I have my grandson Isaac to remind me of the preciousness of our new arrivals. Then come Mary and Joseph representing the current active generation, the doers and shakers, those having the babies, building the skyscrapers, keeping the computers running, finding cures for cancer, and plotting how to get to Mars. My daughter Megan, Isaac’s mom, is my personal Mary—it befuddles my gray matter to think that so few years ago she was the newborn and I was the parent juggling career and other concerns with so little time left over for her. As a pediatrician doing her residency, Megan endures the paradox of having to work ungodly hours with other people’s children, leaving her precious few to devote to her own.
Fortunately, she has an intrepid husband in Sean, who’s taken on the bulk of child care and household duties as well as his own job. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Joseph in our Christmas story. If ever there was a go-to guy, following seemingly impossible orders from angels in dreams or trotting the family to Egypt to escape mean King Herod, it was Joseph. But religious history, for reasons of dogmatic consistency—I’m not going there—sidelined him to an obscure role behind mother and child. Even as a kid I thought it odd that Joseph was often depicted as an old man, gray beard and stooped shoulders beside a much younger Mary, rather than the virile husband she deserved. They made him look more like a grandparent than a parent. Was this perhaps an awkward attempt to include the older generation into the story? If so, I’m not buying it, and I’m guessing few grandparents would. I don’t envy Sean’s role as fulltime dad and part-time mom; been there done that; I’m perfectly happy with part-time. So Joseph gets to remain the husband/father of suitable age; but we are still left with the question: where are the grandparents?
Early tradition names people named Joachim and Anna (Google it) as Mary’s parents, Jesus’ grandparents, but they are not in the Bible. Joseph’s parents remain completely unidentified. We can’t conclude that there weren’t grandparents. The story already has enough anomalies about Jesus’ human lineage without adding that in. He had grandparents, and they probably spoiled him rotten, but they likely never got into the scene because they chose to stay behind the scenes, a role preferred by grandparents since the beginning of time. (Not that Joachim and Anna didn’t give Joseph an earful over letting their grandson be born in a barn; just that the bible reporters weren’t around to scoop the story.)
Grandparents, I’ve learned from observation and now experience, like to remain semi-invisible (except when we don’t). We’ve been the infant, the center of our universe, but matured to learn that everyone else is the center of the universe as well; we are each unique and none special. We’ve been teenagers, worse than animals at times, so no envy towards the beasts and their plumb role on the stable stage. We have been the parents, workers, managers, the externally involved; we enjoyed our time in the sun, endured the sweat and burn, and now are content to sit in the shade and watch from the sidelines. And we certainly haven’t joined any heavenly choir yet; we may sometimes feel the brush of feathers, at which we hold our breaths and hope it is the touch of angels’ wings and not something wrong with our minds.
Grandparents, I’ve learned, prefer to live contentedly in that in-between area just off stage, ready to step in when asked but happy to step back when the need is satisfied. We may move a bit slower, an example, we like to think, to a hectic world that easing off is quite all right. It may annoy when we ask questions when you want snap answers, but we’ve discovered that your own answer is the best answer, no matter how wise ours may seem. We try to provide but remain unperturbed if we fall short; we know all needs are taken care of, no matter what.
Grandparents are neither fools nor gods although we try to avoid the former and aspire to the latter. We’ve already lived much of our current human life; we don’t regret our mistakes because it doesn’t change the past. We quietly offer the fruit of our experience to the next generation, fully expecting them to stand on our shoulders as they reach for and achieve heights we can only imagine. To paraphrase the words of the grown-up Jesus as he took leave of his followers: “The things that we did, you shall also do, and much greater things.” As it should be.
So where are the grandparents in the Christmas* story? Right behind the back curtain, probably in an easy chair, maybe snoozing. But no worry, we wake up easily. Just give us a call.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all you grandparents, to all you busy parents, to all you grandchildren. And, in case you don’t fall into the first two categories, the last certainly includes you. Like that newborn baby in the manger in Bethlehem, there is no human being who wasn’t and isn’t the Grand Child of the Universe, of the Great Spirit, of God.
With Love to all,
*The Christmas story, in my opinion, is not a “Christian” story. It belongs to no separate sect or belief system. It is Every Human’s story: the celebration of the birth of the Divine within each of us. Let’s work in the coming year towards for the day when no war, persecution, or prejudice is perpetrated “in God’s name.” Claiming that anything that harms one’s fellow man is done in God’s name or in any name for God is the most horrific of lies. No more of that.