Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Away From the Manger

The other day I was in a conversation with a colleague about the upcoming Christmas season. It was the usual small talk that one makes at this time of year centering on the topic of whether we're "ready for Christmas." That question for me now always raises a series of other questions about what that really means to be "ready for Christmas." Then she said something that made me think even more: 

"We're a long way from the manger," she sighed. A long way from that placid scene in First Century Palestine with the newborn baby and his doting parents and the animals in the stable, remembered in the 21st century with the words of Silent Night: " All is calm. All is bright...Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep heavenly peace."

At first blush, I could certainly see what she was saying. Our world, in which most of the United States is about to see record high temperatures that are more reminiscent of Austrailia in December, seems to be filled with more rage, more anxiety, and more acts of senseless violence. Many people seem to be operating on a shorter and shorter fuse. Certainly, my patience has been wearing thin with drivers in Tallahassee this week between the ones who like to roll through stop signs and the others who seem to want to take their own sweet time while traveling in the left lane. Every time I could feel my blood pressure rising, I'd be reminded that losing my cool wasn't going to make them go faster or get me anywhere safely. The mere mention of presidential politics makes me roll my eyes. And the deepening divisions between people and the edginess of all conversations involving race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or a combination of any of those definitely can lead to a despairing sigh, "We're a long way from the manger."

But then I'm not that sure that we're all that far away from the manger. Because, despite the song and the soft-glow sepia recollection of what that night was like at the time of Jesus' birth, what that night was probably really like was not that different--in world terms--than our present night, save for the advancements that have led to electricity and cell phones. On that night, a young Hebrew girl and her much older husband were on their way to be present and accounted for by the Emperor.  This was a long trek for the pregnant Mary, and yet this was the type of oppression she and her people endured in this Roman Empire. And it seems Joseph and Mary must have gotten a late start as they could only be put up in the stable. And here--amidst the animals--Mary must give birth. Something tells me that her soul did magnify the Lord--and then some-- quite loudly as she pushed that baby through her birth canal! And, according to our Scriptural accounts, that birth caused a celebration to break out in heaven with lots of "Hallelujah!" Perhaps it wasn't all that calm after all.  And certainly the difficulties of those times, while with less technological enhancements, were no less fear-producing. Roman rulers were tolerant of the Jews as long as they didn't get too uppity. But the Jews were powerless against the Roman juggernaut, leaving many anxious, possibly even full of rage. Various rebellions against the authority had been tried and they failed. This was a time when lepers were segregated away from their communities. Women and children had no standing and there were instances of a breakdown in the social safety net that left some who were to be cared for, begging for help on the streets. Sound familiar?

Here's the thing about that manger and the birth that took place one night so many centuries ago. It was God's amazing effort to make Love so real to us that we could see it in the face of a baby boy. And that act of amazing grace by God is powerful enough, meaningful enough, and ultimately real enough for us that we and others throughout the globe come together on this one night to recall that moment of his birth. That moment lives on in the birth of many other babies, as my spouse noted. It also can be seen in the eyes of any person or creature we stop long enough to step off our own path and our own desire to get somewhere or get something done, and take the time for another. Those things still do happen even if they don't make headlines in the New York Times or even the Thomasville Times-Enterprise.
The manger is at hand. What makes it more than just a sweet story is when we open our hearts to the reality of what it means to have God that up-close and present in our lives. A baby left unattended will die. So we better take care of him, perhaps by loving one another just a little bit more. 

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