A Way in a Manger

A Christmas Message

           Tatya was a sweet girl, a typical teen with plenty of homework, friends and text messages.  Her parents were model citizens by all appearances.  They were almost too busy to recognize Tatya’s increasing silence.  They noticed that she was more withdrawn, but they thought it was a normal teenage thing.  They hoped it was just a phase.

Tatya herself couldn’t put her finger on the problem.  There was just this…emptiness.  It was hard to get up in the morning, and it took every ounce of her energy to get herself dressed and off to school.  She didn’t care about her classes, even creative writing with her favorite teacher.  Then Jose got assigned as her lab partner.  He was quiet like her, and nice.  They started sitting together at lunch, and within a week they were inseparable. Jose was funny in a shy sort of way, and Tatya liked that he was different from anyone she’d ever met.

Mom and Dad were happy that Tatya seemed more happy, had more energy.  Jose’s family was Catholic, they didn’t mind that.   They seemed serious about their faith.  The kids never stayed out past their curfew, and Jose treated Tatya like a queen.

Then it happened.  Tatya started losing her appetite, missing school because she felt sick.  Mom was suspicious, but didn’t dare entertain the thought until one day she couldn’t ignore it any more.  She confronted her daughter, and Tatya tearfully confessed that she was pregnant.

Their family would never be the same after that.  Accusations were hurled, doors slammed.  Silence hung heavy for hours, then more bursts of anger and cries of anguish.  Tatya would not consider abortion an option, and her parents agreed.  She loved Jose, and she loved her baby.  Eventually the arguments lost their steam, and acceptance settled over them.  Anticipation, even.  By the time little Joey was born, both families were thrilled to see the baby.  Tatya’s parents provided room in their home for a little one.  Jose’s family helped support the baby.  The young couple wasn’t sure if they had a future together; it would take time to figure that out.  Meanwhile, baby Joey needed lots of love, and he got it.

A baby changes everything.  Whether born into a stable home or as a feature on the old reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” a helpless infant reminds us what really matters.  A new life forces us to rediscover how much we can care and nurture.  We change the object of our focus to the needs of a small child instead of all the other aspects of our lives that demand attention.  This is what life is all about, we tell ourselves.  The baby is worth whatever it takes to protect him and provide for him.  Our hearts are captivated by a tiny, wet, innocent baby.  We shake our heads and smile, and admit that life is good when it’s all about the baby.

This week we will celebrate Jesus who came into our world like that.  He was a vulnerable, hungry, sleepy little infant cradled in his mother’s arms.  The baby was Joseph’s top priority, and he managed to get Mary a warm, dry place for the night, even though it was among the livestock.  What a night for Mary to go into labor!  What a strange way for God to appear.

One way of thinking about Jesus is that he came to set things right in the world.  You would think that in order to do that, God would make an appearance in a way we could understand—as a mighty warrior king.  Powerful, commanding, authoritative.  The world needed a firm hand back then.  The powers that kept shifting through political schemes and military battles could have been instantly quelled by a show of God’s spectacular strength.  Then they would know who was in charge, once and for all.

But God wouldn’t compete for attention like that, with something even louder or more forceful than our own methods of control.  I grew up in a large family with five siblings.  Mealtimes could get pretty noisy.  As the second to the youngest, I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention.  I certainly couldn’t holler above the voices of my older brothers and sisters, and that was frowned upon anyway.  So I took to quietly tapping my neighbor and then whispering in their ear, “Pass the salt.”  It worked; my quiet method of communicating was noticed, at least by one other person, and I got what I needed.

God sent Jesus in the most unassuming, humble, quiet way that demands a different kind of attention than the noise and force of a busy, sometimes violent world.  He overturns our understanding of what God should be like to show us how God operates: through the poor, in the quiet, almost hidden.  It’s as though God prefers to come in the back door instead of the front.

God’s way is reflected in the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke, chapter 1: “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

A baby reminds us what is important, and that is what Jesus did.  Babies don’t care if we are rich or poor.  They don’t know anything about reputations, beautiful homes or sculpted bodies.  Babies ask only to be cared for and accepted as they are.  They teach us to love simply by loving us without condition.  If you think of it, Jesus does that too.  He simply asks us to accept his love, accept him as he is.

And of course our innocent little ones aren’t always so innocent.  They start knocking over each other’s blocks and pinching their little brothers.  They get bigger and cheat on tests and wreck the car.  They demand a different kind of attention.  Kittens grow up to be cats, they say.

Jesus grew up too, but the message we get from the manner of his birth didn’t change.  His birth signaled God’s way, different than that of the respected religious leaders of Mary and Joseph’s time.  They emphasized purity and strict obedience, while Jesus grew up to focus on forgiveness and grace.

His way was different than the Roman way too, that of enforced oppression and containment of the masses.  It seems that wealth and political power were coveted as much back then as they are today.  Jesus insisted that the force of God’s love is made perfect in weakness.  He showed how God’s goodness is reflected in humble personal relationships, over time.  Jesus’ way is never in a hurry to prove itself.

In order to show us his radically different way, the way of love and mercy.  Jesus came into the most vulnerable situation: an infant in a common, working family scraping to get by, subject to the whims of the Roman powers.  He asks us to meet him there, not in the temple or the state house.  He came in the same way he wants us to follow him, where it is messy and human and often inconvenient.

Maybe his way involves loving your annoying sister-in-law or being patient with the slow progress of your child.  It could mean giving in on a longstanding dispute, purposely trying on powerlessness as an act of love and humility.  Or standing firm for those who have no voice. In other words, making his way your way, in your own life right now.

There is one other aspect of Jesus’ coming that is easy to overlook.  In this season, we have come to think that generosity is God’s way, and that is true.  God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus.  But Jesus came and also intentionally received from us—from humans—the whole time he was growing up and even sometimes in his ministry.  He let his mother Mary raise him.  He let his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus fill his need for friendship and comfort.  He enjoyed the friendship of his disciples and sometimes made jokes with them.

We are invited to be givers as God’s people, but giving can also be a position of power.  Jesus shows us how to have less control for the sake of more love.            His way sometimes means we listen to others and learn from them, even though social or educational or financial status would dictate otherwise.  Jesus sees what everyone has to offer and blesses it, blesses us.  And he asks us to do the same for each other.

A baby changes your focus for good, if you let the experience affect you from the inside out, like Tatya’s and Jose’s families.   It changed Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and Elizabeth.  It changed the shepherds and the magi too.

The Christ child demands our focus.  Nobody has to tell us “what Christmas is all about.”  It’s all about Jesus.  The trick is not to discard the infant after Christmas, as you might toss the Christmas cards into the trash.  To turn your attention from the noise and demands of popular culture often enough to hear his message of love.  Let your heart be moved by Jesus on his terms, in his way.

God did not come to a world that was expecting a baby.  It was a messy, obstinate, power-hungry world then, and it still is today.  It is a world of chaos and disappointment, greed and violence.  We see it in shootings and political standoffs.  So many in this world continue to suffer from lack of resources.  We are desperate for peace, for well-being, for some idea of what life is about.

And so God calls us to come away to a cow shed, to a makeshift nursery.  Our gaze is drawn there to a baby, the Son of God himself bearing God’s unmistakable message of love.  Go and find the nearest baby and let Jesus teach you his way, the way of love, the way to life.

 

 

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