December 2021: Your Own Nativity Story

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. '76
Dear Friends,

One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Breath of Heaven,” by Amy Grant. Not only is the music hauntingly beautiful, I think the lyrics truly capture what Mary might have been thinking as she was traveling to Bethlehem with Joseph, about to give birth to the Son of God. The song begins with the words, 

I have traveled many moonless nights,
Cold and weary with a babe inside,
And I wonder what I've done.
Holy Father you have come,
And chosen me now to carry your Son.

Past midnight on Christmas Day, after everyone else had gone to bed, I turned on the television, channel surfing to relax and reflect on the day. I stopped on a Christian channel to listen to a fellow talk about “finding your own Nativity story.” I was intrigued by the comment and listened to his explanation. In essence he said that we all have heard the Christmas story - Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem, the innkeeper turning them away, the stable where Jesus was born among the animals, the shepherds in the fields, and the arrival of the Magi. It is a surreal and serene image that Saint Francis of Assisi made popular in a first live reenactment of the Nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio in central Italy. But our TV speaker asks the question (and I am paraphrasing), “Though we know the scene and the story, have we truly understood it in a personal way, realizing that Jesus was born for me?” He suggests that if we are able to personalize the Nativity narrative, it becomes more than just a historical account of what happened over 2000 years ago. It becomes that ultimate moment of love and sacrifice for us when the veil between heaven and earth was lifted, and the human and divine combined to give us “Emmanuel”- God-with-us.

The Nativity story is filled with symbolism and lessons for us to ponder, much like Jesus spoke with parables: “ . . . she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger . . . “ (Luke 2:7). A manger is a long open box or trough used to feed horses or cattle. Jesus calls himself the “Bread of Life” in John 6:35: "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." In our Catholic tradition, we believe that we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ each time the bread and wine are consecrated at the altar by a priest, who has been anointed by generations of successors of Jesus and his apostles. Being laid in a manger since his birth, Jesus has sustained us by his life of preaching and teaching, and redeemed us by his suffering, death, and resurrection.

The first to appear at the birth of Jesus, aside from animals, were the shepherds. The role of the shepherd was important to the economy of the time, but it was often filled by one of the male children of a peasant family who would not have an inheritance. He would live outside of society as a nomad, and most likely would not be well-educated. God chose to announce the birth of Jesus to one of the most unlikely groups in the society of the day. In the depiction of the Nativity scene, the Magi - the three kings - stand alongside the shepherds in a gesture of equality that ignores social class in the eyes of God. Some historians and theologians conjecture that the Magi arrived sometime after the birth of Jesus, but, nonetheless, the scene as we depict it today reflects the message that everyone is invited to know Jesus and to personalize the story of his birth. While some, like the innkeeper, who did not have “room” for Jesus, still all are invited to welcome him into their lives in their own time.

Reflecting back to the Amy Grant lyrics, Mary’s “silent prayer” is much like our prayers, wondering if sometimes we have the capacity to “bear the load” we face, whether it is health issues, financial challenges, relationships, or other hardships. In those times, our personal Nativity story can provide us with the “breath of heaven” we need to get through it all.

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now
Be with me now
Breath of heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of heaven
Breath of heaven
Lighten my darkness
Pour over me your holiness
For you are holy
Breath of heaven

Our Christmas plans with family were changed significantly again this year by COVID. Thinking, like many people, that we would be able to gather together without the pandemic concerns of last year’s Christmas season, we found out a few days before Christmas that some relatives experienced “break-through cases” of the virus, which changed our plans and was disappointing to all of us. However, in the context of the bigger picture of a world experiencing violent weather events resulting in losses of homes and lives, hospitalizations from a pandemic surge, family financial stresses, and other challenges facing us as a local, national, and global community, our changed holiday plans certainly were not a heavy “load to bear.” 

When we are asked to either work through a hardship or are faced with helping others manage through difficult times, we may ask ourselves if we have the capacity to handle it all. The example of Mary’’s humility and simplicity in praying for God’s help gives us the confidence to push through our self-doubt, “offering all that we are for the mercy of God’s plan.”

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.

As we continue the Christmas celebration into the New Year, I wish all of you the peace, love, and joy of the Nativity story with the hope that each of you will find your own personal Nativity story that will keep the spirit of Christmas - the presence of Christ - alive in your hearts.

Merry Christmas!

Michael A. Marinelli, Ed.D. ‘76
Head of School
Archmere Academy is a private, Catholic, college preparatory co-educational academy,
grades 9-12 founded in 1932 by the Norbertine Fathers.