But you, Bethlehem, Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
On the way to this second Sunday of Advent, I have been thinking about small, about plain, about Bethlehem. A few years ago I started thinking of my Christmas tree with this in mind:
a baby born in a tiny forgotten barn in the quiet little house of bread.
If I think on the manger scene long enough, I can feel the cold wind seeping through the spaces between rustic boards, the light falling in shafts. I can smell the musty scent of hay and barn. I can feel the mystery, the uncertainty and the pending glory.
I know there was no Christmas tree in the manger, but the world I live in celebrates Christmas with a decked out evergreen, so I am using the tradition to tell God's story of peace and togetherness. A lighted tree sets the stage for a story of light. My favorite moment is when our tree is filled with twinkle lights, but no ornaments yet. Some year, I am going to leave it just so and not think a single thing is missing. It would reflect Isaiah's prophecy,
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
Every year our Christmas tree is just a little bit different. We have bought trees from a lot, we have cut down our own at a tree farm and a few years ago, we bought a permit and trekked out into a National forest and chopped one down Paul Bunyan style. We have put up Douglas Firs, Grand Firs and Noble Firs, a few Blue Spruces and even a faux tree. A few times, we bought a living tree in a burlap ball which we later planted in our backyard.
For the ornaments, we started most years by using our box of eclectic ornaments collected over the years along with crazed colorful ball ornaments. There were plenty of handprints, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, felt, glitter and yarn; all sweet chaos made by tiny hands.
In those early years, our tree was naked on the bottom third (when the kids were toddlers and the dog was a puppy), had half the lights not working once it was all decorated (we left it) and one year it fell completely over spilling ornaments and water all over the living room (we just propped it up and called it good). Some years are just Charlie Brown years and we loved our tree all the more for it's struggle to survive and one remaining ornament.
When I talk of decorating, I mean going beyond embellishment to include that part of the word that means "honor" like a decorated soldier. Included in the honoring idea of decorating is that behind the medal lives deeper meaning and sacrifice. I wanted to bring that sort of decorating to our home, to the ornaments on our Christmas tree.
Besides the tree, we always had a Nativity scene at child's eye level, available for the whippersnappers. It was hands on, sticky little hands. Many years our Nativity had colorful visitors from Star Wars, Polly Pockets, Legoland and Marvel super heroes. One year all four of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came to the manger. They may have ridden in on a skateboard or an All Terrain Vehicle, but all came to see the Baby Jesus.
More recently, with the whippersnappers off to college and the older two graduating and getting married, it was only me decorating the tree before everyone came home late in December. So began my decorating the tree with the rustic manger in mind. Lots of ornaments stayed wrapped in tissue awaiting another year. I chose ornaments inspired by the humble side of my Advent readings. Mostly animals and manger ornaments made it onto the tree, but anything rough, woodsy, burlap, tin or driftwood. Also a few glittery peace signs to remember Peace has come to live with us.
Who humbles Himself to behold
The things that are in the heavens
and in the earth?
I am still thinking of a cold, wintry night without a place for baby Jesus to lay his sweet head except for scratchy hay in a rough wooden trough surrounded by woodland animals. I like to remember that first Christmas in Bethlehem when the stars sang and Peace truly came to Earth no matter how chaotic it feels in our time. The world Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into was unsettled and violent just as ours is today.
So this year I'll probably leave my burlaps wreaths on the front door and our tree will again be filled with small, humble, earthy things like animals, acorns, pinecones, birds, bird nests, barns and little Nativity scenes all strung with twine and rope and burlap ribbon.
I'll also sprinkle in a few heavenlies like stars, lots of stars. The starry sky cried out for years to announce the baby. At the time, only a young couple, a few shepherds and three wise men were listening. If we hush our souls and listen, we can still hear those stars sing. You can never have too many stars.
I also add angels and their messages of peace. We are still waiting for Peace, meanwhile we are believing it came at that Christmastime too. That is our faith, believing without seeing. And because there was no room at the inn, I like to add little houses of any kind and even globes for the idea of home. In honor of the Baby King, I also add my own kids' silver baby cups and rattles hanging from a ribbon.
Here are a few ornaments from last year's humble manger tree.
Don't think I am suggesting you run out and buy all new ornaments! You likely have just what you need. That pair of zebras? They are from our Noah's ark ornaments, but if they had been in that Bethlehem barn, my guess is the pair would have worshipped the baby Jesus.
Just use what you have or make something by hand. There isn't one way to honor the Christmas story. You could tell the story from the wise men's point of view with angels, camel caravans, dreamy stuff, and all things royalty; crowns, gifts of gold and silver and spices.
Decorate your Christmas tree with what brings you joy, reflects your family and makes you think of the the night Jesus was born. That's the whole idea behind nesting with the manger in mind.
I am nesting with the manger in mind, keeping near to my heart this story of God's grace and unfailing love in a forgotten barn. It was risky love that put Glory in the arms of a teenage girl. It was lowly, tender and completely upside down, with hints of scandal.