It was almost Christmas and they were far from home. They had every intention of spending a quiet holiday season. But urgent business required him to travel, and she refused to stay home without him. Technically this was his hometown but family connections were distant, and plans to stay with family had fallen through. It seemed like nothing turned out the way he planned these days. They had always been faithful, prayerful people. Only recently, though, had God really started to be present in their lives. Following God, he thought, meant things would fall into place. Instead everything seemed to be falling apart. It’s never good to be out on the road on a cold December, but especially with a pregnant wife, and no room at the inn. When he tried to figure it out, the old fears would nibble at his mind. But as Joseph let go of his worries, his heart became filled with peace. God would take care of them, he was sure of it.

His wife Mary was immaculate, but her life was not, as Julianne Stanz shared in a recent Compass article. After the angel announced the birth of the child, she went with haste to the hill country. When Mary returned to Nazareth three months later, she was starting to show, and Joseph knew the baby wasn’t his. The film Mary of Nazareth depicts Joseph angrily tearing down part of the house he had been building for them. After the angel comes to Joseph, a later scene shows their wedding. Music is playing but only a few are dancing. Most of the guests look on with scornful judgement, perceiving Mary to be an adulteress. Why was God allowing such suffering?

Our Christmas celebration is always in danger of being ruined. Travel plans get disrupted, gifts don’t come out right, family squabbles darken the day. There are sometimes hospital stays and even untimely Christmas deaths. We see the darkness and we question God. But only when life gets really dark do we start to notice the faint light of Christ. And we begin to realize that God’s light has always been shining in our lives. We must let go of flashing neon and glowing screens if we want to seek Heavenly light. This light guides us through suffering to the crib and the Christ Child.

When we kneel before a manger scene, we don’t often think of suffering, heartbreak, and desperation that came before it. We don’t think of what it cost Mary and Joseph to put Christ at the center of their lives. We don’t think of the shepherds leaving their flocks in the fields, or the long journey of the wise men. We see a moment full of peace and joy. We see God’s perfect love in human form. We see that the sufferings and sacrifices were all worth it. The first Christmas was perfect because it was full of God’s love, and God’s love is always the perfect gift.

Christmas is the simple gift of love. We will only experience Christmas when we allow ourselves to be simple, too. You won’t find peace, joy, and love wrapped beneath a Christmas tree. It comes when we allow Jesus to be the center of our Christmas celebration, and stop worrying about the rest. There are two ingredients for a perfect Christmas: humility and gratitude. Humility lowers us to see and accept God’s humble ways. Gratitude is realizing we are blessed even when those blessings come disguised in sacrifice and suffering. Put Christ at the center of your Christmas celebration. Be humble and grateful. And you will have the perfect Christmas.

Peace on earth and Christmas joy,

Fr. Joel