Lying in a Manger ©

As we move through the season of Advent, I invite us to take a fresh look at the old story. Even more, I invite us to lay the Advent/Christmas journey alongside the trials and tribulations of our world today – and, more specifically, alongside our own lives.
A number of years ago, I read a moving book entitled In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas written by Dan Schaeffer. Insightfully, he writes… 
Christmas is the day we celebrate the entrance of the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-righteous, all-holy, and glorious God into our world. When I stop and consider this fact and then look at the scene of the baby Jesus in the manger, I scratch my head and say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture.’Four words in this story should challenge my mind, not anesthetize it.” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 17-18)
 The four words to which Schaeffer refers are the closing four words of Luke 2:12. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12, emphasis mine)

I typically envision the nativity scene wrapped in awesome beauty. Mary and Joseph are dressed in graceful robes. The setting is peaceful, gentle and enticing. But the reality is far different.  God did not come to earth in a manger scene, rather he arrived in a feeding trough for cattle.

Early in her career, my wife engaged in some public health nursing. She dealt with clients where the newborn baby’s crib was a box or a dresser drawer. Such is a more apt analogy for God’s entrance in the world. It is indeed a strange scene that presents itself to us at Christmas.

Go back and read of the visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary in the first chapter of Luke.  In wonderment, fear and obedience, she had received the news that she, a virgin, would bear the Son of God. How hard the news of a required journey to Bethlehem must have hit her. And what a journey it was. There was no great parade. At best, she “great with child,” had a long, arduous ride on a stinky, boney donkey – more probably, being poor, she had to walk. 

Or consider the birth. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard the labor must have been. There was no nice, warm bed, let alone a hospital room. She delivered on a dirty pile of straw heaped on stone in cold cave that served as a stable.

Then there’s Joseph. If anyone was out of his element, Joseph was that man. He waited a long time to marry and then he finds out before the marriage that his fiancé is already with child. Joseph didn't sign up to be the midwife – to be alone in a strange place – worried out of his mind about what was happening.

This is religion taking a giant step into the absurd. 

Surely there should be decorations, soft lights and gentle cooing. Instead, we encounter a harsh forbidding scene with characters out of character, radically out of their normal expected element.  As my colleague, Bishop Janice Huie, says about some of the issues we confront as bishops, “…you can’t make these things up!” The same should be said for the drama of the Savior’s birth. “You can’t make this up!” We are not that creative, imaginative or daring. God comes to earth in human form in a way which truly astonishes us as humans.

Step back from this scene; this strange, forbidding, wondrous scene. Step away from the characters who are so out of place. Take a startlingly fresh look at the plot of this divine drama. Were a Hollywood writer to draft such a script, reasonable critics would scoff. Schaeffer writes...
Actually, it all makes sense. When God returned to His creation, it wasn't fitting that bands play, parades march, choirs sing, or heralds trumpet the good news. Because His return wasn't good news...not in this earthly neighborhood. God had long ago been exiled from the hearts and minds of most people. No rulers were willing to step down from Him, no kings were eager to make room for His sovereign kingship. No palaces opened their gates to Him in welcome.

So God entered the world in the one place no one coveted or cared about, a place where no one would fight to keep Him out – a place where no one even noticed. The God of the universe spent His first day of humanity lying in a manger, in a cave in Bethlehem.” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 26-27)
All this is contained in those prosaic words that open the famous second chapter of Luke’s Gospel (good news). At a time when the Emperor was taking up one more tax, a young, expecting couple traveled in civil obedience to their hometown. There in a stable, God entered the world.  

Why? Why did God act in such a strange manner? Why did the creator of the universe, who could commandeer any palace of His or Her choosing, enter the world in a manger-cave and make His first bed a cow’s feeding trough? Again, Schaeffer is perceptive. “The manger scene reveals as much about the mercy and love of God as do any of His words or acts of compassion.” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 27)

Critics of Christianity often picture a harsh, vengeful God towering in judgment over the world. Instead the divine plot unfolds a tale of God’s love so vast and deep that the creator of the universe would enter the world in incredible humility to demonstrate His love. “Could God’s attitude of mercy and love toward our hostile and rebellious world have been any clearer than when He was found lying in a manger?” (Dan Schaeffer, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, p. 27)

All too often, we picture God as far off and removed, as distant and uncaring. We embrace the frivolities and parties of Christmas as if, for a brief period of time, we can forget the harsh reality of our world. But, should we truly look for the coming of our Savior and Lord, we must come face-to-face with a God who knows the world’s hostility in its full force and yet enters in as a baby. 

If we would really search for the real spirit of Christmas – the Holy Spirit of God – we must connect the cradle and the cross. We must begin our search here in the shocking humility of a manger and stark poverty of a refugee family, the pile of straw and the feeding trough. And from here, we must journey to the cross. 

This is the way of God’s love, a grace so amazing, so divine, that it leaves the true seeker of the God either hushed in awe or effusive in song. God, the producer and director, acts here for you, for me, for our salvation and for the saving of this battered and broken world.