“…the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Well, now that is crazy. Just imagine.
As you may have expected, Nichijou´s Christmas episode is, well, not very Christmas-like at all. More like your usual absurdist everyday whirlwind. Let´s just list the facts:
A certain Nakanojo claims that everything in this universe can be explained by science, and there is no way something as ridiculous as supernatural phenomena could exist. He thus tries to expose an exorcist as a fraud, with hilarious results. Young and serious Mihoshi Tachibana is indignant because of the levity of Mei Naganohara, a natural genius at kendo who never trains but always wins. So she tries to get a strike, just this once… While Mei is petting a cat at the street. Fe-cchan is trying to live according to an optimistic motto, but destiny won´t allow it. Back to Nakanojo, who defies the will of his father, who wants him to become a living advertisement for the onigiri street stall. At her orientation interview, Misato Tachibana, Mei´s sister, insists she won´t marry Sasahara, though nobody suggested that. Trapped by Mei’s dogs, Sakamoto and the Professor are saved by Mio and Yukko… Well, sort of.
There are two Christmas sections in the middle of this crazy yet hopeful portrayal of our ordinary lives. Nano and the Professor discuss what will they ask from Santa as they prepare the decorations for their house. The Professor, in her spoiled style, wants everything she can think of. Nano, in her own way, wants some household accessories and an Ivan Bilibin book (I approve! His illustrations are amazing.). But the Professor gets mad: She has asked for a lot of things, so Nano can only ask for one present. This is so obviously unfair, and Nano is so utterly shocked, that the Professor tries to make amends, somehow. Cut to Helvetica Standard, where Santa disappoints a young boy by bringing him sweet melon bread as a present.
That was Nichijou. But, have you ever considered how the first Christmas was for St. Joseph and St. Mary? You may discover that it was, well, not very Christmas-like at all either, in the usual sense of the word. More like your not-so-usual jaw-dropping, historical and miraculous divine-humane whirlwind. Let´s just list the facts. Consider the data which the Scripture, geography and history give us. This is the Roman province of Palestine, a vassal kingdom under Herod the Great. The year is either 8, 7 or 6 BC (from the data concerning the death of Herod, we have recently found that there was a calculation error when setting the year zero), and Joseph and Mary are a poor couple of Hebrew betrothed, though of illustrious descent (as shown by the fact that they paid a pair of turtledoves and two pigeons, the tax of the poor, at the Temple).
Zoom on St. Joseph, a man whose relatives live in Nazareth, Galilee, and who works there as an artisan of some sort. This is a quite complicated extended family living in a quite complicated village: You may remember that the people of Nazareth will try to kill Jesus by throwing him down a ravine, while his relatives will try to have Him declared insane and take him by force, among other things. Not that everyone is a monster either, as some relatives of Jesus will have a role in the early Church. As Medieval Otaku once pointed out, the Scripture does not record any single world of Joseph, but at least I feel that the story by itself is quite expressive. Let´s get into it.
St. Joseph is formally engaged to a girl who was probably a member of his extended family, as was the custom. They both love God and hope that He will assist Israel, according to His promise: She is “full of grace,” kecharitomene, and engages in prayer, while he is “just,” díkaios, and struggles to comply with the Law of God. And you see, after receiving the visit of the angel, St. Mary found out that her old cousin Elizabeth was pregnant, after which she traveled about 97 miles (if, as an ancient tradition holds, Elizabeth lived in Ain Karem) to help her, and remained there for three months (during which Zachariah, Elizabeth´s husband, remained mute), then traveled another 97 miles back to Nazareth. It is not exactly the smoothest road, either. You have around eight hundred meters of elevation gain near Jerusalem, and it is a rocky, thorny, and desertic path.
At some point during that period, St. Joseph made the painful discovery that St. Mary, so pure and full of virtue and piety, was nevertheless pregnant before their marriage, and not by him. He made the difficult decision, after considering the matter in his heart (enthymetentos), to obey the Law and leave her, but in secret, to take the blame, which amounted to prevent her stoning, no less. That was, the Gospel tells us, because he was a just man, what the Old Testament calls a zaddik—that is, the kind of man who carried out what ought to be done according to God in the most loving way available to him. And then, there came the dream, the message of the angel, the astonishing revelation of the virgin conception, and the plan of salvation, the impossible mission which surpassed everything he could have ever imagined.
We have become used to talking and hearing about the Incarnation, but think of it again from the perspective of a faithful Jew who associates God with the veiled ark of the Temple, the thundering mountain of Horeb, the prophets who brought fire from the sky and the twelve plagues of Egypt. God will be a child, and you will take care of Him. Good luck. At least, he and St. Mary could be together.
So, change of plans. Bear with the impossibility to explain anything to his circle and relatives, whatever they may have assumed. Hearing of the edict of August Caesar. Traveling another 97 miles with a pregnant woman in her late term up the rocky path to a village which your ancestors lived, and find that there is no place to host her in the day she is about to give birth.
Bethlehem was a small village (“And thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, little to be among the thousands of Judah…”—that is, it had a population under 1,000 families, the minimum for being considered a city). It was built over two hills that are not very far from each other, and the houses were built mostly by adapting natural caves. Other caves were used for the animals. In one of these, Joseph and Mary found shelter, and Jesus, God Incarnate, was born.
Suddenly, local shepherds come from nowhere to adore the Child, warned by a singing legion of angels. After forty days, St. Joseph and St. Mary come to fulfill the Law and offer a poor man´s offering at the Temple, in which an old man who is praying there, Simeon, tells them that he had been waiting for this very moment all his life, that he can die in peace at least, and that Mary and the Child will suffer horribly. And, shortly before or after that, foreign Magi, astrologers, from the East come to Bethlehem to adore the Child, whose birth has been prophesied by a star which has guided them to the exact spot where they live.
That by itself would be a lot for any man to take, but then comes the next news, from another prophetic dream. The most powerful man of the country, Herod the Great, wants to kill the Child. This was a man who had been the king of Judea for thirty years and was a paranoid, bloodthirsty tyrant that had exiled his first wife and executed the second with half of his own family, was in command of a secret police of sorts and, according to the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, was so cruel that when he felt like dying, he ordered his sister Salome to kill some of some of the most popular figures of his people the moment he stopped breathing just to guarantee that they would not rejoice too much (luckily, when he in fact died, she disobeyed the order). To avoid the danger, he was to take his wife and the Child and go immediately to the foreign land of Egypt, to begin there from zero. Until another prophetic dream sends him back.
Life, says Mio Naganohara at one of the peak moments of Nichijou, is like baseball. You never know what may come next. Life in Christ is like Haruhi Suzumiya’s baseball: Literally all things are possible. Nakanojo is wrong: There are things happening in this world that are beyond explanation, that surpass us, sometimes ridiculously so. And there is hope in that. With Joseph and Mary, the very first Christians, we are called to follow the same Child, the Redeemer of Humanity, God Incarnated, and play our part when is our turn to bat, knowing that in doing so there is the highest love and the deepest meaning. Little by little, we will realize that our ordinary, or not-so-ordinary life, is truly full of miracles. That we are together in this. That God is truly with us.
So keep your ear open this Advent. Smooth the roads, clear the paths. Don’t take anything for granted. After all, who knows what Christmas may you be called to live this year?
Nichijou can be streamed at Crunchyroll.