Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mangers, messes, and miracles

I grew up feeding cattle. I remember December nights walking into the barn where the calves huddled together, steam rising from their nostrils and frost on their curly backs, the temperature inside a good twenty degrees warmer than outside. Up the ladder to the haymow, toss down a bale, cut the twines and distribute the hay throughout the long manger that ran the whole length of the middle aisle of the barn. The calves crowded forward, champing and blowing and butting heads to get at the alfalfa. Eating was serious business, and within minutes the manger was empty, with just a few forlorn stalks of hay in the corners. The calves eventually drifted away into the straw-floored corners to bed down.

In Jesus' day, most village homes had a section where the animals were brought inside at night. Sheep, cattle, a donkey might have been bedded down in the house, though in a separate area from the people. The animals' presence in the house, just like in the barn of my youth, helped warm the place. In some homes excavated by archaeologists the animals' area is slightly lower than the human living areas, and a feed trough separates the two.

Luke says nothing about a stable or an innkeeper. Technically, he doesn't mention an inn either, though some English translations use that word. There were two kinds of places for travelers to stay in a place like Bethlehem. The true foreigner would likely stay in a "pandocheion" -- a Greek word meaning a place where you paid for a room, like the Samaritan did in Jesus' story in Luke 10. But in Luke 2:7 it says there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the "kataluma" or the "guest room" (see for example Luke 22:11). So Sunday School pageants notwithstanding, Joseph and Mary were probably welcomed into a home -- perhaps some of Joseph's extended family -- that was already hosting guests for the census. (For a sense of Middle Eastern hospitality practices, see Genesis 19:1-3 or Judges 19:10-21.) Since the guest room was already taken, they slept in the common area of the house up against the manger, and when Jesus was born they laid him in the feed trough. Or, it is possible that the tourist trade in Bethlehem today has it right, relying on some very old traditions, and Joseph and Mary took refuge in the cave where the Bethlehemites kept their livestock, and it was much more like the stable we imagine.

Either way, it's a humble place to put a baby. I met a man once who was the 19th child in his family, and he told me the story of being kept as an infant in a dresser drawer since his family was too poor to have a crib. His mother told him the story many times, he said, to give him a sense of what life was like when he was born.

Can you imagine Mary retelling these stories as Jesus grew older, remembering and pondering, turning the events over in her mind and many years later, relating them to Luke when he was researching this gospel? "When he was born we had to lay him in a manger -- the house was full, and there was no room in the guest room for us!" This would be a seriously humbling experience for any of us, but how much more for the Lord of the universe. Early Christians sang a hymn that says Jesus "though he was in his very nature God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:5-11).

Yet it is possible that God was not as put off by the manger as you or I might be. There are clues in the Bible -- and especially in the Christmas story -- that indicate God delights in the dirt as much as fine crystal, in the trough as much as the goblet. From bottom to top, God's Spirit flows through the mess and miracle of his creation, brooding over it just as he brooded over the chaos at creation (see Genesis 1:1-2). God is no stranger to the low places, the dimly lit humble spaces, the feed troughs and the darkened rooms. The manger is not a temporary dislocation for Jesus. Instead it is a beacon to us, pointing to the heart of God that meets us in our lowest places.

Standing in that barn one winter night years ago, I remember pondering this idea that God loves all of his creation -- the smells, the steam, the leaning timbers and cracked wood, the calves and me, all of us together. Blowing steam out my nostrils like the calves and watching the vapor fade into the cold air I realized that I was standing in a holy place, a place that God loved, a place that Jesus came to redeem. Not only that old barn, but the messy and miraculous places in my life and yours are beloved of God.

At the bottom line, Jesus spending the first night of his earthly life in a feed trough teaches us that we don't clean ourselves up in order to be acceptable to God; instead, he comes into the mess, meets us just the way we are and bottom to top his Spirit broods over our chaos. The best and wisest thing we can do is welcome him in.

1 comment:

  1. Very touching perspective on the nativity. It would be nice to think that Mary and Joseph were fortunaty enough to spend this most important of nights in a full house with extended family. Whether a stable, an inn, or a common room adjacant to a feeding trough, the bottom line is that the Almight God came to earth in a most humbling and personal way. Thank you for the bright thoughts this Christmas!