In the church in which I grew up, I recall being fascinated by the church crèche. We didn’t have any kind of nativity scene at my home, so this immense crèche, dragged out from storage each year, was very impressive. Many years before, some faithful Christian had made a thatched stable to house the large and beautiful plaster figures – Mary, Joseph, the manger, ox, donkey, sheep, shepherds, and of course the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. The babe itself never appeared until Christmas Eve. We knew Christmas had really arrived when we saw it placed in the manger – a kind of plaster promise that love was real and that God had really come.
The crèche was usually erected in the back of the church in the baptistery, which contained the font. So the birth of Christ and the birth of God’s sons and daughters through baptism were to be found in the same place. It was dark back there in the back of the church, and the soft yellow light of the crèche was comforting. I always went to look at the crèche whenever I went to the church. I would stand before it and study the figures. I was looking for something. That was why I had come – although I couldn’t put words to what I was looking for, words to what this birth is all about.
How can any of us imagine we can capture God in mere words? We can be aware only of our very real longing to know that God is real and that we are loved. The Christmas event is about both that longing and that love. We have turned up, in part, to seek out a mystery. To enter once more the story of a night two millennia ago that has echoed down the years until this moment. We know from experience that this is a thin place – a place where the veil between God and ourselves has become transparent, where the invisible might at any moment become visible. This night is the night where, like the shepherds, we can enter the darkness and find it is light.
It is a dark world at times – layers of sadness, disillusionment, suffering, deprivation, anger, and brokenness infuse our common life. But we somehow sense that what happens in the stable is a tale for all time. It is the Word set over and against the darkness we fear and which threatens to overwhelm us – darkness we may try to hold at bay with gifts and parties and children and food – but a darkness that inhabits our souls nevertheless. Present with the Christ child, our instincts tell us that while it is there, while it is darkness still, we need live no longer in fear.
Those hardy shepherds hurried to the stable as the angels commanded them. They found no great spectacle, but a small homeless family huddled over a newborn child laid in a feeding trough. On the one hand, it was a scene depicting the most ordinary of human events. On the other, it was the birth of the greatest mystery of all – of God, of love, given into and expressed through the tiny body of this fragile newborn child.
Mystery may well be glimpsed in visions and dreams and signs, but true mystery is to be found in what is already here – in the apparently ordinary and generally unremarkable daily-ness of life. Mystery is enshrined in the very stuff of our own living – in a baby, in the courage of his young mother, in the unselfish and generous love of her betrothed, in birth, in shepherds who believed and were fed by what they saw.
God reaches out to us by becoming a helpless child, by surrendering into our frail and flawed arms, by God giving God into our power asking to be loved. No wonder we want to be connected to the light in the midst of darkness; to enter the mystery and wander about in it forever. Like the shepherds, we are not after solutions. We want to see and to be part of whatever God has in store.
Blessings for this holy season,
The Reverend Susan N. Eaves