If we let the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth be the story and enjoy it for what it offers (even if we struggle believing its literal historicity – which is fine), we have to wonder what Joseph and Mary must have thought. They were told God was going to bring the Messiah into the world through them. Divine royalty. What would you expect the God of all creation to pull off for the reception of God’s child? When you have absolutely every possible resource at your fingertips, and cannot run out because you can always make more, just how luxurious can you make something? Can you imagine what Joseph and Mary must have been dreaming of? Deluxe accommodations for sure. All inclusive. Lots of service at your fingertips. Better than Rome could conjure.
What would over-the-top hospitality look like to you? If you were hosting a very special guest and had an unlimited budget, what would you do to make that person feel welcome and honored?
Now picture a typical manger scene you might see on display at your home, on a card, in a park. What is the name of the animal that goes “moo”? What is the name of the animal that goes “baaa”? What is the name of the animal that goes “hee haw”? What is the animal with two humps and spits? There is one thing that they all had in common that we don’t often talk about (for some unknown reason) at Christmas. They all pooped.
Maybe not right then and there at the same time – that would totally change the Hallmark card, right? But at some time or another, and likely all of them within a 24 hour period, they all pooped. The setting into which Jesus was born undoubtedly manifested a stench that warned you to watch your step! Whether or not this birth narrative story of Jesus is historically accurate, what is certain is that Luke chose to include it in the biography of Jesus he wrote, and not because he invested early in a figurine company that would make the scene by the millions to adorn people’s homes and eventually end up in their garage sales. Our imaginations don’t really do the scene justice. In reality, it was likely a cave where the animal’s owner would keep his livestock away from thieves and predators. A cave. Little ventilation. Dark, dirty, and stinky given the poop on the ground. That’s the setting for the entrance of the Divine into the world in a new, powerful way. Certainly not what anyone would have expected.
Why in the world would God choose the cave-stable for the grand entrance of God’s beloved, chosen child? Because it so clearly represents so much of what God is really all about. This is both absolutely wonderful and deeply disturbing at the same time. Wonderful because it is so accessible. Disturbing because it is so counter-intuitive to how we think about majesty and power (which drives our vision and fuels our motivation).
Mangered. Brene Brown’s research has helped her come to the conclusion that vulnerability is key to spiritual awakening. What is more vulnerable than a baby? What environment would communicate vulnerability to the world than a cave-stable? The very humility inherent in a manger birth surely served as a catalyst for growth in unexpected ways toward unparalleled heights and depths. As his followers would eventually learn, the vulnerable humility that started for Jesus in infancy was the mode he lived all the way through his life. As Cynthia Bourgeault notes:
What makes this mode so interesting is that it’s almost completely spiritually counterintuitive. For the vast majority of the world’s spiritual seekers, the way to God is “up.” Deeply embedded in our religious and spiritual traditions—and most likely in the human collective unconscious itself—is a kind of compass that tells us that the spiritual journey is an ascent, not a descent… Jesus had only one “operational mode”… In whatever life circumstance, Jesus always responded with the same motion of self-emptying—or to put it another way, of the same motion of descent: going lower, taking the lower place, not the higher.
How interesting that the cave-stable was the most humble of spaces, humble enough for a lowly third-shift shepherd to feel at home. A space the forced humility by whoever entered – the smell and whatever was on the ground would level the playing field for all who entered. The fancy camels ridden by the Magi did not impress the cows or donkeys, and the fancy robes the Wise Men wore would have looked silly in a barn. Yet this was the space God chose to show up in a profound way, communicating to everyone everywhere that all are welcome, no matter what you look like, smell like, dress like; no matter what your occupation or backstory, you are welcome in the presence of God – the gift, after all, is for you. The Christmas scene also reminds us that when we find ourselves in “poopy” situations, we should remember that God is comfortable in such spaces, and is probably very much present. We tend to look for God in pristine majestic places like mountains, oceans, streams, redwoods, and lakes. God surely is there, displayed in the majesty of creation. But God is equally present in the ICU, the homeless shelter (or encampment), the brothel, the car wreck, the cancer unit, the foxhole, wherever injustice rules, wherever people are treated inhumanely, and whatever awful situation you can conjure.
The scene also provides instruction. If God chooses to come in the flesh in this setting, how should we interact in the world with our flesh? Richard Roher provides insight on how we choose to engage the world impacts how united we feel with the Divine:
The more we cling to self-importance and ego, the more we are undoubtedly living outside of union [with God]… We were created for union. But the place of union feels like nothing. We spend most of our lives projecting and protecting our small, separate self-image. Living instead from our True Self, hidden with Christ in God, feels like no thing and no place. It doesn’t come with feelings of success, others’ approval, awards, promotions, or wealth. In fact, others may think us foolish or crazy. And so we put off the death of our false self. We cling to our ego because it feels substantial and essential… But the saints and mystics say, “When I’m nobody, I’m everybody!” When I’m no one, I’m at last every one. When I’m nothing, I’m everything. When I’m empty, I’m full. This is why so few people truly seek an authentic spiritual life. Who wants to be nothing? We’ve been told the whole point was to be somebody.
To be mangered like Jesus means to fully embrace all of the implications inherent about God making entrance in the cave-stable, and it also means to fully embrace this: following Jesus keeps us there.
What does the manger context tell us? We need to rethink where we look for God, not limiting our gaze to the gorious heavens, but including the depths of despair as well. And since the human experience invariably and inevitably leads us to those darker, dirtier spaces, when we find ourselves there, wondering why we’ve been abandoned by God, we need to remember the manger: God is present, even there, in a powerful way. Finally, as people who know this good news, when we see others struggling in poopy places, feeling alone and abandoned, wondering if anybody cares (including God), we know where we need to go: right alongside them. To be present. To be love, hope, strength incarnate. The Spirit of God is within us not just for ourselves, but to share. When we do, the poopiness doesn’t seem as poopy anymore.
Idea: To help your children more fully get their minds around this, set aside some time to work through it. Ask them the question about how we honor special guests when they visit, where we have them sleep, do we clean before they come, do we offer special food, do we ignore them, etc. Help them think as lavishly as possible so that you can then draw a contrast with the space Jesus was born in. You could even make it a game, like Scattergories, where players have to keep thinking of ways we honor guests until only one player remains. To help them imagine the cave-stable, play a game of Pictionary where the images drawn are a cow, donkey, sheep, camel, and the baby Jesus. Highlight the fact that all of these characters were present in the story. If you want to hear some childish giggles, remind them that all of the characters had at least one thing in common: they all pooped! Ask why God would be okay having Jesus born in a stinky stable instead of a really nice hotel or palace. Tell them the good news, that this was a way for God to let us know that God is present even in the nastiest of places. When we’re feeling like we’re in a poopy place, feeling all alone and like nobody cares, we can remember the manger scene, that God was there, and that means God is with us no matter where we are. Finally, ask the kids what the most expensive gifts are that their friends are asking Santa to bring for Christmas. Would kids be excited to get those gifts? Would it bring them joy? When the Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus, it brought them a lot of joy, and reminded them that God was with them. The material gifts were impressive, but what was most impressive was that they made the trip in the first place. When we see someone who is really sad or lonely or afraid or sick or hurt, we get to be like the Wise Men to them. The greatest gift we can give is ourselves, so we should go. Ask the kids if they know anybody who is sad or lonely or afraid or sick or hurt that they could do something thoughtful for, like visiting or sending a card, and help them do it.