To be true to the biblical narratives, the Christ child would most certainly be born of an indigenous heritage. The Saviour’s people would have been colonized and living under the rule of a foreign Empire. The Saviour’s village tribe would be out on the fringe of the Empire within a day’s journey of the capital. Let’s say within a twin-engine Otter’s flight – perhaps in a community in Northern Quebec?
It’s been seven generations since Canada’s colonized people have drifted from their traditional ways. Slowly at first, they lost their trust in the land as the source of security. Slowly they began to depend upon the machines and tinned foods and coin of the realm that eventually invaded every aspect of their lives.
Mary and Joe remember the stories their grandparents told them. They remember trips stolen away from school where they were shown how to negotiate the waters, get what was needed from the land, use everything to good purpose, watch the stars, the birds, the tracks that would tell them where they were, when they were, who they were. Sometimes they can even remember parts of the songs their grandparents sang.
So the legend goes – seven generations is the time for renewal, for rebirth, for hope – when ancient ways become new again. When a new path is found that will lead the people – Anishinaabe – for seven generations still to come.
It was bad timing. It was perfect timing. Mary got pregnant just as the government orders came through for evacuation. Their town’s site would soon be deep under water. Their town was about to be flooded by the hydro-electric power dam under construction.
The Anishnaabe had protested and fought against it in courts. They’d prayed for deliverance from this dislocation. They resisted – and held out – staying while others gave up and left – hoping for a last-minute court injunction.
But when Mary was just about due to deliver – Joseph had a dream. The visitor told him to go. Told him that the journey they were about to begin would be a great unwinding of the circle – starting small and reaching far beyond any horizons he could imagine. He would name the child “Singer of old Songs”.
Mary was also visited. She got the message that the babe in her belonged to the past – and belonged to the future. She would know the suffering of her people in the birth and death of the life in her womb. But with this hard message also came a strange and powerful joy that didn’t let her worry but provided an incredible calm. A trust in what was to come.
Maybe it was partly the story that had reached her of her older cousin’s recent delivery. Elizabeth had given birth to a boy. Months before, while they both carried, they had shared notions and intuitions of the Creator moving within them, certain intuitions of a season not seen for countless moons. They’d laughed it off as hormones and the crazed thoughts of pregnant women everywhere. What woman didn’t feel that the child within them was special like no other?
But when Elizabeth’s husband Zach had announced the baby’s name as “John” … the babe started wailing and didn’t stop. It had deafened them. Neighbours offered advice. Town nurses talked of sedatives. It was only during the naming ceremony – when an ancient, hoarse-voiced midwife had interrupted – at the critical time when the parents were to provide the name – she’d cried out over the cries of the babe “his name is Trailbreaker”. And the babe was quietened. Hadn’t cried since – so Mary had been told.
Not everyone was going to the new location the government had set up. Despite the sales job they’d been given about the new place – better schools, better healthcare, better sanitation and water and work… Many had decided it was time to try city life.
Mary and Joe boarded the Otter and headed south with the others. The weather was supposed to be clear. But the storms had become more and more unpredictable with every passing year. Before they’d been in the air an hour, the pilot had announced that they were in for some rough riding. Mary worried that the jumps and jerks might bring her labour on. But one look at Joseph’s strained face changed that. She’d let him do the worrying. She’d be strong and calm – claiming the peace the visitor had offered.
It got a lot worse before it got better. And it only got better when the pilot decided to give up and make an emergency landing at the power dam construction site. He knew there’d be empty barracks there for his passengers. He’d flown the construction crew out for the holidays just days before.
There was still a skeleton crew left behind to run the place. They’d stayed for the double overtime pay – to keep the heat on and fuel in the machines – keep them running so the whole place wouldn’t freeze solid.
The shift boss met the travellers in the mess hall and assigned them barracks. The crew-cook got busy putting on coffee and chili and sandwiches. Then the boss got a look at Mary – doubled up in pain – and Joseph’s pleading gaze. He got the kitchen staff to go clear some space in the food storage shed. It was the cleanest place in the camp – and there was room because supplies were low. Only trouble was – the camp nurse and company doctor had left on the last flight out. He apologized to the couple and showed them to their digs. Maybe the baby would wait?
At the station that night there also happened to be an Innu hunting party blown in by the storm. Further south than they usually traveled, they didn’t really need the shelter or supplies. They were accustomed to getting by with few comforts. But they’d decided to go see the construction site. They wanted to be able to tell their children about the place where everything changed. About the place where the river’s power was sold to the south in exchange for the last of their memories. They were old. Their children didn’t know what they knew. Their grandchildren would never know. They wanted to see the place where this final change would happen.
What they found instead was a couple in need. The grandmother with them had been at many births and she took things in hand. As she worked to prepare, she sang songs in a dialect from which Mary and Joe could only catch a word or two – the odd phase rang familiar – but the comfort of the woman’s song ran deep within them. An old man, her husband, sat on a milk crate in the corner keeping rhythm with a shaker he’d produced from deep parka pockets.
Not many in the camp slept that night. The winds howled and everyone was sure that it was Mary’s cries they heard. … Finally they could stand it no longer. They woke the shift boss to go find out how the young couple were. “We’re worried about how they’re doing out there in that shack in this storm!” they explained.
“What storm?” he asked, as he stumbled over to his office window. There was a luminous glow – green, blue, white, orange – filling the pane. They all crowded to the window in wonder.
The wind had blown the storm past – and now a still quiet had descended upon the camp. The stars pierced the black night like high trumpet notes while the sky danced with colour celebrating the limitless universe – filling their eyes to overflowing, making their hearts jump up and their guts boom deep – all without a sound.
As if with one mind, their gaze now turned to the storage shed where they saw a dull low light in the window. Without a word they all – every one of them – headed for the door – they walked out into the night and to the door of the shed where they froze still – stopped in their tracks in awe and wonder – until finally the shift boss reached out and turned the handle and, one by one, they filed into the room.
It was no longer just a room. It had become a sanctuary. In the dim light the ceiling seemed to soar above them. The piled crates and boxes were ancient stone pillars rising in grandeur. The four adults, Mary and Joe and the grandmother midwife and grandfather shaman circled the banana box where someone new lay quietly breathing among blankets. So still was the room that you could hear her breathing – the whispered awe was so thick among them.
The way they explained it later – to friends and family and strangers who might listen – “it was like the baby – she was aware of my presence. The parents gave me such a sense of belonging in that room. Gave me a sense that time had stopped and the whole universe was spinning around us – with us standing there at its centre.
“It’s crazy talk I know. But the funny thing was – over breakfast when we talked it over – we all felt the same. We all just knew that something had happened that would change everything. We were changed. Don’t ask me how. I just know that now – since that night – I’m watching and searching and aware of things I’d never noticed before. There’s something new inside me I never knew before – or had long forgotten. I know we’ll be hearing good news coming about that girl one day.”
The Biblical Story:
The Roman Empire had conquered Israel Palestine in 63 BCE absorbing its village economy and ancient earth culture into a colony of its military power-worshipping international empire. Caesar Augustus appointed Herod to become “the King of the Jews”. In the year 37 BCE, at the age of 36, Herod became the unchallenged ruler of Judaea, a position he was to maintain for 32 years.
During the reign of Herod, King of Judea… the angel Gabriel was sent from Yahweh to a town in Galilee called Nazareth where a young woman named Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. His family had lost their property through debt and so he had taken a trade and become a tekton – a day labourer.
The angel Gabriel greeted Mary, saying “What Joy! You have been shown great favour – the Lord is with you.”
Mary was much disturbed at his words and was wondering to herself what such a greeting could mean, when the angel spoke again: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive and give birth to a child, and you’ll give him the name Yeshua. The child will be great and will be called ‘child of the Most High’ and Lord God will give him the Throne of his ancestor David, and to his realm there shall be no end.”
Mary responded, “I am the slave of the Lord – let it be with me as you have said.” Then the angel left her…
A few months later, an edict was issued by Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole empire in order that Rome would receive tribute in taxes from the conquered peoples of the empire. The taxes kept the Roman military fed, building roads and aqueducts; devastating forests and the landscape, keeping peace at sword-point, to bring the empires’ progress to its colonies. Augustus was known as the “Prince of Peace” and “Saviour” of the people.
All the conquered people’s lives were disrupted. They had to pack up and at their own expense, go to the town their family originated from to be registered.
Among those people was Joseph, who went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the town of David, in Judea – because he belonged to the family and House of David – the legendary once and future King of Israel. He went to be registered with Mary, his engaged wife, who was pregnant. While they were there her time came, and she gave birth to her first child, a son. And because there was no room for them in the guest room, she wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.