Five and a half years ago we divided up the remnants of my parents’ belongings. My Dad had died on Easter Day that year and then, after his funeral and getting things initially settled, we gathered one last time in late May to sort out a life’s collection of things. We chose things by birth order, selecting among the sentimental or practical items that remained, and I was number six. I had my mind’s eye on an item in a Rubermaid container buried deep in the basement that I hoped would be forgotten or overlooked by my older siblings. I have no idea what they chose, frankly, I think someone grabbed a Bose system, and another the dinnerware. I just know that the first five picked and my item remained. When all eyes fell to me, I quickly said, “Mom and Dad’s creche.”
I loved that nativity scene. The stable was hewn out of rough wood; remnants of lumber that had been around an old barn at my godparent’s home. The figurines were painted by hand too, Mary and Joseph, Jesus in the manger, camels and magi and shepherds and an angel. My mom and dad received it from my godparents—my mom’s brother and sister-in-law—the year they moved with their three kids out to the country. The house they moved to was next to a dairy farm, and that had to be 40 years ago now. My family spent nearly every weekend at my Uncle Jim and Aunt Linda’s old farmhouse that summer, my dad helping with the electrical and other odd jobs, and my mom helping to clean and get them settled in, as that dusty old house became a home. We kids would play in the barn—jumping in to piles of hay—or running threw the cornfields that grew on both sides of their yard.
My parents loved that creche, and so did I. I loved looking at it as a child especially in the early morning while it was still dark because a single candle lightbulb hangs in the rafters just out of view while illuminating the whole tableau. Five Christmases ago, I opened up the container to find a large ziploc bag with the hay my dad got from my godparent’s farm to spread out on the wooden floor of the stable amidst the cast of characters. While unwrapping the figurines, I discovered that one of the camels had been broken along the way and glued back together by my mom. This year the nativity scene—including that original hay—sits at the end of the hallway across from our front door. The characters have taken their spots, and we placed the baby Jesus swaddled and in the manger into his place between his parents this afternoon.
You can tell an awful lot about a person by what they choose.
In the opening scene of his gospel, Luke writes about the story my creche depicts, when Jesus was born among the animals in a stable. Luke doesn’t describe the buttoned up sort of places we see in paintings at the MFA or on Christmas cards, where not a single strand of hay can be found on the floor of that barn, and where Mary had enough forethought to put on some makeup. Rather his narrative scene is more like the barn at my godparent’s home, especially after they got a few cows themselves. There was often an odor because the animals penned up there had to relieve themselves, of course. And while the hay could do as a sleeping place in a pinch, you also had to contend with mice and other rodents bedding down there themselves. It is precisely in that sort of condition that Jesus—God in flesh—chose to be born. Mary’s maternity ward was not even slightly pristine no matter how many times Hallmark wishes to tell us otherwise. Jesus spent his first hours in a dark and dirty place because his parents were shut out from the inn.
You can tell an awful lot about a person by what they choose.
This decision by the Almighty to be born to a poor couple who lived under the rule of a harsh empire and had to make their way to some far off homeland in order to polled and then taxed shows us immediately what lies at the center of God’s heart. Jesus came not to a princess living in the palace of Jerusalem about five miles away, but to Mary. Christ came not in royal splendor, but wrapped in any rags they could find lying around. His birth was not announced to a waiting public, but to nearby shepherds—people so low on the social ladder that their testimony wouldn’t even hold up in court—who were just trying to stay warm that night.
And that is such good news. Because contrary to the promises made by advertisers, our lives are rarely picture perfect. Many of us have spent the past month frazzled just trying to get it all done, and we didn’t live up to our fanciful dreams for what Christmas should be. We still may have people on our list to buy for, or cookies to bake, or perhaps cards to get out. But even then we’re staying in the realm of our culture, the one that wants to make even the barn look so much better than it is.
What is really the truth is that God chose, as theologian Will Willimon puts it, “the filthiest place in the world [to be] the first dwelling place of the most perfect person ever to be born.” God chose to come down in to messes of our real lives. The ones we try so desperately hard to sugarcoat. The ones we hide from others because we’re embarrassed by what has happened. The messes we even fail at times to admit to ourselves.
Jesus came for that. Jesus came for you.
And in that bleak midwinter when Jesus came to that old barn, angels joyfully announced his arrival to those untrustworthy shepherds. “Do not be afraid,” the angel declared, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And so they went immediately to that place to see for themselves if it could possibly be true.
You can tell an awful lot about a person by what they choose. And you can tell an awful lot about God.
Just as God chose to have Jesus born in that stable all those many years ago, so God chooses now to have Jesus born in our hearts. We have now become the chosen birthplace of Christ. You see, God wants us to know that God will be with us even in the dark and foul places of our lives. That God will not leave us to fend for ourselves when we have to trudge through the muck of life. That our circumstances will never be too humble, too low, for God, and will never cause God to desert us. By choosing that stable and by choosing us as the places of Christ’s nativity, God shows us what was important to Almighty one. God sees the rough hewn spots of our lives and fills them with light.
That’s why we gather together on this silent night: to remember that once long ago in that town of Bethlehem a savior was born. Jesus chose to be born in that stable and placed in that manger in order to show us who he is—one who is the champion of us all, no matter who imperfect we are. We can know full well that the Lord God, the Creator of the Universe, came to us—all of us—and chooses to stay with us in all the unpleasantness of our lives, no matter what that involves.
And so we sing out with joy tonight, for to us a Savior has been born, even Christ the Lord. He brings peace and goodwill to people everywhere, no matter where they are, no matter how imperfect—or perfect—their lives seem to be. May we know that God chooses to be born in us this night. And may the Christ child grow in us bringing light to our dark places this Christmastide and forever. Amen! And Merry Christmas!