As I flick on the switch, the tiny bulb meant to act as the star casts a warm glow over the scene below. “You have a lot of nativity sets, Mom,” my son comments after he helps set up the wooden, ceramic, hand-carved, and clay sets next to the snow globe manger scene and the stitched Kantha magi picture. I stopped counting how many baby Jesus figures adorn our living room come Advent-time every year. They have captivated me since I was a little girl, even before I knew who this baby in the creche even was. I just knew there was something strange and beautiful about this helpless babe that people revered.
What was attractive about a wriggling bundle of flesh? What power was there in this helplessness? It’s a mystery I still wrestle to answer every year as I gaze upon these nativity sets I have collected from around the world.
In the church, most of the year we contemplate the cross, what we more often see as the symbol of our redemption. But I find myself drawn more to the cradle than to the cross. We view the coming of the Messiah as a culmination of our salvation, but I think it’s just the beginning. The enigma of the life we live in and through the fully God, fully human Savior is something we work out with fear and trembling our whole lives.
The week before we unboxed our mangers, I sat at the computer for hours pondering all I had learned in the last three months during my final trimester of studies for my master’s degree in Practical Theology. We were tasked with writing a statement of faith, detailing what we believed about important doctrines like the nature of God, creation, and our eternal destinies. One question I spent more time on others is what the Imago Dei really means, what it says about us that we were created in the image and likeness of God.
Is it something about our physical bodies? Our capacity to reason? Our freedom to choose or to love? Our eternal nature? I read arguments from theologians and early church fathers arguing for each of these.
But the words I kept coming back to were ones I had heard months before when I spent a day hiking and praying at the Ignatius House in Atlanta. A quiet Jesuit priest spoke to a handful of us retreatants throughout the day about the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
What stuck with me from that day is he didn’t speak about becoming more spiritual through these contemplative exercises but becoming more human. “We become human on our journey through this life and so become what God is like,” he said. It felt scandalous, blasphemous. I grew up hearing that our humanity was nothing more than fallen and sinful from birth, taught we should try to be more like God, less like us. Instead, he was telling us to live more fully into who God created us to be.
It’s true what mother’s say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. My births are now seven and nine and a half years ago and I have to strain to remember the details. Giving birth is a moment we spend countless hours preparing for. It is the culmination of reading and birthing classes, showers, reordering our lives and homes, taking growing baby bump photos, and long months of waiting.
Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. There’s a new life to care for. There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of childbirth. Just moments ago we screamed, “I can’t do this!” in agony but somehow, like millions of mothers before us, we did.
This time of year we talk a lot about birth. We read and sing about it, talk about it at our parties, reorder our lives and homes with decorations celebrating it, look at photos and miniatures of the place of the birth, and spend the long month of Advent waiting for the day of birth to arrive. Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. We spend a month pregnant with the anticipation of the Savior’s imminent arrival.
There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of his actual coming. Life rages on and we forget the incarnation means God actually lived among us, that Jesus didn’t just go from angelic baby in a manger to resurrection. In between he cried out to the father in agony “I can’t do this!” and asked for the cup to pass from him. He lived in the pain with us. He still does.
Reading Lauren Winner’s Wearing God right before Advent this year had me thinking more literally than metaphorically about birth. I squirmed uncomfortably, as I am sure others do when they hear the graphic details of other’s birth stories, when I imagined Jesus’ birth truly for the first time in my life: “As the contractions pick up, Jesus would sense that he was being squeezed. His head helps stretch Mary’s cervix open.”
“Do I really want a God with a body?” Winner asks. “Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?” It’s easier to hold Jesus at arm’s length, to live a sanitized version of Christmas. If he peacefully slipped into the world one silent night long ago, I can relegate him to the corners of my life, packed away with the manger scenes to be brought out once a year...
I didn’t know how much I would miss the “feeling” I have come to associate with Christmas. It starts when the air turns crisp and the leaves crackle under your feet. It’s this intangible excitement that comes along with the lights and the parties, the stories to be read and cookies to be baked. It’s this atmosphere of anticipation when people say, “It feels like Christmas.”
There are no lights this year around town nor any signs of the season. We have moved to a country where Christmas isn’t celebrated in the same way. It’s celebrated under brightly colored canopies hung in the courtyards of the few churches that meet together, in advent candles and carols sung. It’s celebrated quietly in homes where the few Christ followers meet. As I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas (as I longingly looked at pictures of snow from friends online, in awe because we rarely get snow this early in the year in my deep south American hometown), I’ve been given something of a gift. I’ve been given a small Christmas.
It doesn’t feel much like a gift at first. The ache for the familiar felt like it had a vice grip on my heart as others said, “Oh you’re so lucky you are escaping the commercialism that has taken over Christmas and advent.” Maybe that’s true but is it wrong to just want a peppermint mocha and some pumpkin pie to get me into the spirit? And don’t get me started on the mental hoops I jumped through explaining how Santa would still visit even though most people in our country don’t celebrate Christmas at all. I felt like I was missing something vital to give my small children in this place...
It’s the first morning of Advent—the season that embodies longing, the pause between waiting for deliverance and the arrival of Emmanuel. The only sound I can hear is the ticking of the clock as I scribble in my journal that’s lit only by the soft white glow of the Christmas tree’s lights. It’s one of those moments you wait for—hushed and holy.
But I hang my head in regret in the still of that tender moment. My first act of Advent is repentance as I read the words that describe exactly what I did the day before:
Make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted taking care of all your day-to-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. –Romans 13:11, The Message
I wanted everything to be perfect that day. Thanksgiving was behind us and Christmas was close enough to touch, to start the daily countdown written in chalk next to the stockings. We have the tradition of decorating while listening to Christmas music and sipping cocoa before we watch the first Christmas movie of the season, always Elf.
I worked myself into a frenzy trying to create that perfect moment. The furniture had to be moved to make room for the tree. That meant cleaning the baseboards where the couch had been. It also meant packing away the fall decorations to make way for the collection of mangers that adorn every surface of the dining room. But those surfaces were all covered in dust. One cleaning project turned into another until every space was spotless and by then the time to decorate the tree before we went to evening church was limited.
There are no pictures of the kids laughing while they hung the ornaments. I didn’t have time for that. We had cocoa with dinner but drank it quickly and rushed off to the next thing. In all the preparations for that special moment, I missed it altogether. There were no prayers said beside the tree. The joy of it was lost to me.
I am sure the kids saw nothing but magic; the lights, the cocoa, the music were all there. But I knew better. I was waiting for this magical moment. I was trying to whip up some sacred experience like a batch of Christmas cookies...
In the hustle and bustle of the season, do you find yourself trying to get through your to-do lists and keep the moments going? Join me at SheLoves today and pause during the sacred and mundane moments to wait on the Lord.
I remember the warm glow of that tiny bulb shining down on the mossy cradle that held baby Jesus. My favorite part of Christmas growing up was being the one to rush in each evening and plug the manger in, watching the peaceful scene light up with the warmth that little light brought.
I would sit at the manger in the glow of the Christmas tree and just stare at the picture I knew little about. I didn’t really hear the story behind the manger, growing up in a home that focused more on presents than on the Jesus of Christmas. But still there was just something about sitting at His feet that moved me.
I was hungry for a taste of Jesus, not knowing where to start. I asked my mom for a Bible for my eighth Christmas. I remember the sound of the spine cracking the first time I opened that King James Version Bible with the white lacy cover my mom hand-made for me. I poured over the stories I didn’t understand.
My mom may not have taught me much about the Christmas story growing up. Still there was something in her that guided me towards what it meant to seek after the holy moments, that honored my seeking...
Today I am over at SheLoves Magazine finishing up my December focus on Advent with a recollection of how Jesus came for me in my childhood and Him coming for me again and again. Join me there...