It is an exquisitely sweet story. The Word Made Flesh happened inside a barn. Maternity ward rules notwithstanding, Jesus was born in the midst of feed sacks and animals, visited by shepherds who hadn’t showered, and curious visitors in town for the census.
What happened inside that stable is awe-inspiring. The scene unfolds with soft lighting, a brighter glow from the manger-cradle, and benevolent beasts looking on fondly. Perplexed and weary parents seem glad to have found this bit of shelter just in time for the birth event.
All the Christmas action is focused inside the barn. Sometimes I think about what was behind the stable.
The birth of Jesus inside the stable opens up a chapter in which God continues to reveal that our lives matter. The Jesus birth narrative is about God offering us grace and love in new ways. It answers the fervent prayer for a Messiah.
Behind the stable is another story. This one is about the world into which God inserted Jesus. The story outside the barn is a sad distortion of what God intended. It is too often unattractive, unpleasant, and messy.
When we sing, “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing” we hint that Nativity brings us to the brink of a moment when history will make a dramatic turn toward the way God wants things to be.
As our Advent candles promise love and hope, joy and peace, it is easy to set aside awareness of why the world needed Jesus then, and still does. My all-time favorite work of art reminds me of the less-often told story that the Holy Family were refugees for awhile.
Olivier Merson, in his painting “Rest On the Flight Into Egypt,” depicts Joseph asleep under a light blanket, near remnants of a fire which sends a thin column of smoke skyward. The donkey is tethered near by, saddle on the ground. Mary is asleep between the paws of the Great Sphynx. The baby sleeps in her arms. Starlight glinting off water in the distance provides a hint that they have crossed the Nile on their way to a safer place.
That and more is what lies behind the stable. Outside the barn are reminders of why the still-speaking, always loving, ever forgiving God moved to be present among us in this powerful way. The Nativity narrative brings light and love where darkness and distress threaten to obscure the glory of God’s creation. Phillips Brooks sang it this way: “Above thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
So I pray this for the congregations and members of the United Church of Christ in Ohio, Northern Kentucky and West Virginia this season:
Let what happened inside the barn inspire you to transform what lies behind the stable. In every way every day live so that the ways of the Christ-child continue to inform and transform the society into which we are called as God’s servants. Make the joys and hopes of this season live long after the carol books and lovely crèches are returned to storage.
May this be a glorious and inspiring time for you, for your congregation, and for each of us as we live out the Christmas message. It begins in a lowly manger. Then bids us to step boldly beyond the stable to be “salt, leaven and light” to the world in which we live.
I pray great prayers of gratitude to God as I marvel at the creative and faithful ministries of the congregations of the Ohio Conference! Thank you for your inspired and inspiring service in Christ’s name! And, Merry Christmas!