Christmas is in full swing and most everyone has finished decorating for the holidays. Every year the manger scene is displayed on lawns, greeting cards, in church sanctuaries, and on tree ornaments. Most often we see the Virgin Mary wearing a pretty blue headscarf lying softly over her lily-white gown. Joseph is a robust tall man wearing a beard and is holding a staff as he leans over Mary and the baby Jesus. The babe is wrapped in a soft white blanket with his arms and feet lifted in the air as his lips purse in a sweet knowing smile. Just like the song, Away in the Manger, farm animals are close at hand while shepherds kneel at the babe’s feet. To complete the scene is a winged angel resting loftily above and somewhere there is a star placed high in the sky that shines brightly over the whole scene. This scenario is something that most of us take for granted each year when we celebrate Christ’s birth. However, I think that this scene has been sanitized so much so we have lost the significance of what really happened on that very extraordinary night.
I have given birth to two daughters and for nine months my body changed to adapt to the new life living in me. During those months, I read books about giving birth as well as closely reviewed all of the pictures and diagrams of how my babies looked during any given month. I felt the flutter of their movements. As they increased in size and weight, I increased in size and weight and as my tummy began to protrude from my body it made me feel awkward and disproportionate. Eventually, the time came to deliver my baby and I will confess that labor is excruciatingly painful and back labor is even worse. The medical team did their best to help me through the birth process and after many hours of labor, I delivered my first baby girl. Before going home from the hospital, the nurses made sure that I knew how to care for this new life. They showed me how to bathe the slippery ball of flesh, how to change a diaper and lastly how to feed the screaming creature they called my daughter.
The Virgin Mary had no medical staff to care for her. She received no training on how to care for her baby or even how to feed her crying infant. Her husband Joseph helped to deliver the baby in a stable with animals all around. She didn’t have cute clothes or a warm crib to lay this new child into for warmth and comfort. She only wrapped him in what she had available, a cloth, maybe her scarf, and laid him in a feeding trough filled with prickly hay for a mattress. The couple was not surrounded by a sterile efficient medical team but by dirty stinky animals. When the baby was hungry and demanded to be fed, his mom could only follow her instincts to nurse him. Of course we all know that what goes into a baby’s stomach must eventually come out. Mary had to find a means to capture her baby’s bodily functions so that he remained somewhat clean. The couple did all of this alone with only the animals to keep them company.
So why am I writing such a thorough description of the manger scene? By doing so I want to make it more realistic and not appear so perfect like the pictures that we see each Christmas. This baby in the manger was God! He chose to live on earth in the midst of all of us and to experience life like all of us. When the baby, God got hungry, he cried and demanded to be fed. When he wet his diaper, he cried until his mom took care of it. Despite the birth conditions, I believe that God carried the same wonderful baby smell of any newborn baby. Like us, Mary and Joseph probably experienced anxiety and fear and an absolute profound joy at the birth of this baby boy. The Divine baby chose to be born in this humble and relatable way in order for us to recognize his total and complete love.
During Advent, it has been my goal to spend time in contemplation and in preparation for the coming of Christ child. One way to help me focus is to imagine myself in the barn with Mary, Joseph and the baby. I concentrated on the smells, the feel of the straw and the lowing of the cattle as I gazed into the face of the baby Jesus and really felt his presence here in this life with me. To me, living into the Christmas story, helped me to see the humble birth as a story about the God of love. Even when I feel unloved or not good enough or even when I feel the pressures of life, God shows me that he chose to enter into my world as an innocent baby, born in a barn. He could have found a different way to be here with us but he made himself vulnerable, needy and dependent in order to show me how to love totally and completely. How to sacrifice my wants and needs for the sake of others. Just as God freely entered my world, for a short time, I entered into his story. I invite you to reread the birth story in Luke 2 and put yourself in the midst of the story. Look at the holy family and see the love of God lying in the manger…