It’s that time of year: decorations come out of their hiding places to grace lawns, mantles, table tops and, of course, “the tree.” For those who celebrate Christmas, there is usually at least one manger scene or display in the midst of the lights, ornaments and family holiday memorabilia. We have several at our house, from a traditional olive wood set, to colorful South American manger scenes, to a Veggie Tales favorite – and even a small set made with “s’more” characters that sits on the table with our family Santa pictures.
It is the olive wood set, complete with a large straw-topped stable/manger that always got the most attention during our decorating while the kids were growing up. If I asked one of the kids to set it up, there was some clear intentionality around what went where. Did the lamb stand in front of the baby Jesus or off to the side? Were the wise kings coming in from the east in a line or a cluster? Important decisions, right?
All eyes on the manger!
What with decorations and pageants, TV tellings and scripture readings, we wait and watch for the wondrous birth, and often have our own take on some of the details of the story. We are challenged by preachers to watch for where Emmanuel will be born THIS year, in us and around us, but still our eyes are glued on that illusive place that was something between a space for the animals in the house or a stall in Bethlehem. Was it noisy or quiet? Were the animals watching or leaving the new family alone? Did the wise kings really not show up for the first couple of years? The list goes on…
Forgive me for having a different take on the birth this year.
Let me explain.
It occurred to me not long ago that there are some pretty amazing things that we don’t always talk about when it comes to the birth of Jesus. Yes, the image in scripture and in our memories is wondrous and rich, but there are some other things that strike me louder than usual this year:
God had decided that the best way to get the attention of humanity and show God’s ultimate love for creation was to come into the world that God had created as a human being – to come into the world, not with a “Poof, here I am. I’m God” kind of thing, but to enter this life in the same way that all humans come into the world. God wanted this Best Gift to be born – a precious infant – to waiting parents. He – Jesus – would truly be one of us, one among us. For that to happen, God needed some cooperation – and that’s not new. Throughout the Old Testament God seeks faithful response from humanity to live out God’s purposes. Sometimes we respond well, and sometimes, we don’t. Hence, the need for Jesus!
So, I began to think and wonder, “What did God need for that birth of Jesus into the world to take place?” What did God need — from whom — for that to happen? Surely God could have waved holy arms and made Jesus’ birth happen, but such was not the case! What did God need? Who did God need?
Did God need people who were willing to carry on their lives in a way that was contrary to the social norms and live life as a family with an unusual pregnancy? Joseph and Mary were able to do that.
Did God need some people who were willing to travel a long and hard road when most moms-to-be would be nesting and Dads-to-be pacing? Did he need Mary and Joseph to say “yes” to the journey that would undoubtably be difficult, and perhaps a bit dangerous? Did he need people to do that in order to get the birth to Bethlehem? They did that.
Did God need someone to open a door of welcome, someone perhaps who was often on the alert for the special needs of those around him, someone who cared about strangers and who could make room for the young woman whose time for delivery had clearly come – regardless of where she came from or how much money she and her husband had?
Did God need curious onlookers, who would grasp just a bit of an amazing message and share it, long before Jesus was able to speak for or about himself?
What else? Who else did God need for this birth, this child, this gift, this savior to come into the world, let alone to grow up in that world and take on the amazing ministry and message that was Christ’s to claim and live? How did God need others, so many others, to take their places and live their part of the story – in faith?
As I was thinking about this, I began to imagine that it is so much less important that the animals and the manger and the shepherds are placed correctly in our birth tableaus during the season, and far more important that we see the image of the manger, remember the story, and perhaps begin to ask, “What is it that God needs of me, what is it that God needs of us, this Holy Night, to further the message and witness of hope and love and forgiveness?”
What does God — what does Jesus – need of US this night?
Are we the ones to welcome unexpected travelers who have no place to go?
Are we the ones to embark on a difficult journey, not sure of how it will end?
Are we to stand outside the lines of tradition and community in ways that get us noticed and perhaps chided?
Are we the ones to step in, saying “yes” to God in ways that we can not easily undo, ways that change our lives forever?
Perhaps we are.
Perhaps we are.
You see, the story, our images of the manger, are not just about “them” and their faithfulness.
The story paves the way for our own…
Come to Bethlehem and see…
Susan Faye Wonderland
Synod of the Trinity