What do you think of when someone asks the question, "Are you ready for Christmas?"?
I can tell you the lights are up on our eaves. We went to the Christmas tree farm and cut down a beautiful Turkish Fir, the one with sky blue on the underside of the needles. It twinkles in the corner of our Gathering Room waiting for a star topper. My Christmas cards are ordered, imprinted with “Merriest Christmas, love the Conlins”. Sometimes, I think I'm read when I set out my Nativity.
But none of that means I am ready for Christmas. In fact, it may mean I'm not ready at all. While I like all of that festivity and coziness, Advent makes me look wide-eyed at the less shiny part of Christmas. I can be easily blinded by twinkle lights and good cheer. Yet, if I give it room, Advent reminds me that I am made for more than tinsel. I am called to make my soul ready for a Savior. I am invited to make room for him to dwell in my heart, but what if my heart is already crowded with twinkly lights, blue-tipped Turkish Firs, and Christmas cards that say “Merriest Christmas”?
Our Nativity has the usual visitors, shepherds, a camel, a cow and several sheep, a rusty star, but I noticed this year that because Mary is holding baby Jesus, there is no manger. When my children were young, all kinds of characters visited the baby Jesus: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Legomen, and Polly Pockets. We always wanted our children to feel welcome in the Nativity, to find themselves there, at home even.
I don’t know if this story is brand new to you or you’ve heard it a hundred times before. But today, I’d like you to hear it for the first time, so I have included it here in a version you might not be familiar with. As you read it, ask this question, “Who am I in the Nativity?”
Luke 2:1-20 (The Passion Translation)
The Birth of Jesus
2 1–2 During those days, the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, ordered that the first census be taken throughout his empire. (Quirinius was the governor of Syria at that time.) 3 Everyone had to travel to his or her hometown to complete the mandatory census. 4–5 So Joseph and his fiancé, Mary, left Nazareth, a village in Galilee, and journeyed to their hometown in Judea, to the village of Bethlehem, King David’s ancient home. They were required to register there, since they were both direct descendants of David. Mary was pregnant and nearly ready to give birth.
6–7 When they arrived in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor, and there she gave birth to her firstborn son. After wrapping the newborn baby in strips of cloth, they laid him in a feeding trough since there was no available space in any upper room in the village.
An Angelic Encounter
8 That night, in a field near Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching over their flocks. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared in radiant splendor before them, lighting up the field with the blazing glory of God, and the shepherds were terrified! 10 But the angel reassured them, saying, “Don’t be afraid. For I have come to bring you good news, the most joyous news the world has ever heard! And it is for everyone everywhere! 11 For today in Bethlehem a rescuer was born for you. He is the Lord Yahweh, the Messiah. 12 You will recognize him by this miracle sign: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough!”
13 Then all at once, a vast number of glorious angels appeared, the very armies of heaven! And they all praised God, singing:
14 “Glory to God in the highest realms of heaven!
For there is peace and a good hope given to the sons of men.”
15 When the choir of angels disappeared back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go! Let’s hurry and find this Word that is born in Bethlehem and see for ourselves what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 So they ran into the village and found their way to Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in a feeding trough.
17 Upon seeing this miraculous sign, the shepherds recounted what had just happened. 18 Everyone who heard the shepherds’ story was astonished by what they were told.
19 But Mary treasured all these things in her heart and often pondered what they meant.
20 The shepherds returned to their flock, ecstatic over what had happened. They praised God and glorified him for all they had heard and seen for themselves, just like the angel had said.
Did you get a sense of who you are in the story? Keep thinking while we explore the idea a bit more.
Let’s look at each place in the Nativity in its own special light.
Walter Wangerin, Jr. writes of seeing the Nativity in seven concentric circles. This might help you see a place or person you identity with most this year. He describes the circles like this:
The widest circle is the universe that God spoke into order with stars, "dark and cold and winterfast".
The next circle within that first one is a choir of angels, heaven singing hallelujah from the stars.
The third circle is rimmed with ancient trees. Now this is not one I might have thought of, but Wangerin says wood becomes the bookends of the Nativity being both the cradle and the cross. I read this recently about trees in a Patagonia catalog that came in the mail,
“Trees are our oldest living companions. They record time, transmit messages through their roots, and form communities that grant us – through shade, shelter, and an anchor in snowpack – a measure of safety and freedom.” Molly Baker, Patagonia
She was talking about skiing with the treeline for orientation and stability. But scientists have found that trees are connected underground by their root fibers, and do communicate distress, drought, and disease to one another. They can even smell with their leaves, heal some wounds with sap and sugar, and protect themselves with chemicals. Before you think I am getting too woo-woo about trees, consider that the Bible says the rocks cry out, the starry skies declare the glory of the LORD, and the trees clap their hands. (Is 55:12)
The fourth circle holds the animals. We know that Jesus was born in an animal shelter of some sort for he was laid in a feeding trough. While we don’t know for certain we can guess there were likely donkeys for the travellers, sheep, and goats. And where animals feed, you can expect mice and owls.
The fifth circle are the shepherds who came in from the fields when the Angel visited. These may not have been just any shepherds, but shepherds to the Temple flocks, part of the sacrificial system. That makes the angel’s appearance to these particular shepherds layered with meaning as they heard John the Baptist call Jesus, the lamb of God – God’s own sacrifice for our sin.
The sixth circle holds Mary and Joseph, the two obedient parents who strained in poverty, humility, and loss of reputation to let Christ tear through their skin and into a cold world, one that had not room for a young girl in labor.
The seventh circle holds the wooden manger, a dirty crib for the child born outside of town and outside of polite and powerful society. And inside the manger, in the center of all of the other circles, is baby Jesus. All other circles point to and wrap around this one in the center. No matter where you find yourself in the scene, I hope you know God is in every circle calling you closer.
Did you find where you might be in in the Nativity from these circles?
There is no one single answer. There is only an answer for you in this season. Ask God to show you. Talk about it around the dinner table with friends and family.
Back when I was a teenager, when I was too busy for God, I think I was the innkeeper with no room for Jesus in my life. If I had been asked this question when I had four small children at home, I might have been Mary. These last few years becoming a Jojo to four small Wonders, I have been able to relate to the swaddling clothes.
You might take some time this advent season to simply begin right where you are. Look around and take note of what you see. What might God have for you there? You don't have to be in any hurry to leave that space this season. But once you see where you are and who you identify with, you may want to move closer in.
The truth is, God is calling you closer in from wherever you are. There is no place he cannot call you from. The wise men were Gentiles from two years away when God called them by the stars. The shepherds were out in fields in the middle of the night diligently doing their work when the Angel called them. Mary was a common girl in a small no-count village when Gabriel called her. God was calling people then, and he is calling today. “Come see.” “Move closer.” “Don’t miss this.” “Look what I have for you!”
We think of the night of the Nativity as still and peaceful, but I want to challenge that comfortable thought. It was dark and lonely. It was dirty and uncomfortable. Those who wanted to come closer had to move.
But here is the part I almost miss. It was God himself who came all the way to us. God, who tore the heavens and came down, is in every circle. Does that startle you? Does that amaze you? Does it scare you just a little?
Sometimes I'm so busy looking for myself, I forgot to see where God is. Close as breath and calling me near.
All photos by Monica Conlin.