A LETTER TO BETHLEHEM DESIGN AND SUPPLY
Dear sir …. and/or madam,
We are excited about your architect’s
preliminary plans for our civic memorial
honoring the incarnation.
We could see at a glance,
how wise he/she has been
to suggest a hillside site, overlooking the city.
The vistas from Meditation Portico –
the olive groves, the grazing sheep, the little town below –
will be much more conducive to deep contemplation
on the mystery of the birth of the Child of God
than any site we might try to spruce up
around the stable in that rather seedy part of town.
Our board loves the overall concept.
The marble courtyard sets off the chapel well.
The space within is large enough to evoke
a sense of the majesty of God
(as well as to accommodate several tour groups)
without being dominating or oppressive.
There is a sense of understated elegance
so appropriate for remembering the Holy Birth.
And the snack bar and gift shop are readily accessible,
but do not intrude on the overall reverent ambiance.
But we do take issue on one point –
and here we are unanimous:
The focal center of the memorial,
there under the dome,
cannot be, as your architect suggests,
I repeat, cannot be,
that ugly, rickety old animal-feeding trough!
We find that quiet unacceptable.
It does not fit in.
Our committee prefers … a bronze cradle.
VICE PRESIDENT OF AUTHENTIC CRÉCHES, INC.
So, Bob, the board turned down my proposal
to expand our top-of-the-line model
to include the events outlined in Matthew 2:16-18.
Oh, they agreed that the addition
of a soldier or two,
and a few bloody babies,
would make #AC-41 more authentic –
that is, after all, our name –
but they said it would spoil Christmas
and, perhaps, warp the psyches of our children,
to have an awful reminder of Herod’s horror
there on the mantel next to the Baby Jesus.
They also pointed out that
the market analytics support their case:
Such a créche would never sell.
So, if my family, and yours
wants to include the Slaughter of the Innocents
in our Advent meditations,
we’ll have to watch the evening news together.
I spoke to my pastor
before I called you, and said,
“It’s still a good idea!”
I mean, if we learned while very young
how to put the Savior and the slaughters together
there on the mantel …
Wouldn’t we have a better chance
of seeing how the Savior could touch
the innocents are still out there being slaughtered,
while we keep the Savior safe on the mantel
next to that blasted elf.”
“That’s an Easter issue,” she said.
To which I replied, “So, let’s carve Easter créches!”
O COME, O COME …
The hymn we just sang, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is based on the O Antiphons – common chants from early Christianity. Each verse refers back to a prophecy from Isaiah which describes an attribute of God with a name.
The names of God juxtaposed with the somber tones of longing in the hymn tune serve as a powerful reminder: though our circumstances change and trials and tribulations arise, God never changes and His faithfulness is constant.
This has been a difficult season for many of us. Illness; unemployment; separation from loved ones; broken relationships; unmet hopes and expectations; events that have divided our homes, families, communities and country; loneliness and isolation; the death of a friend or family member; war in our world; fear for our future.
Any of these by themselves can be overwhelming, and so we put our heads down and carry on, numbing ourselves to our own most intimate feelings. For many this season has been a time marked more by sorrow than joyful expectations.
We busy ourselves with this task or that. Or we isolate and keep our grief, fear, frustration, disappointment and despair to ourselves. When we share our struggles with others, we feel like a burden, an ingrate, or a Scrooge.
Where do we find room for our humanity?
For our vulnerability?
For the complexity of our experience?
All too often, we think of the Christmas story as one of great joy and excitement, forgetting so many crucial parts of the story. The story of the first Christmas is not really a happy story, but a story about life in the real world.
It’s the story of a pregnant, unwed fourteen year old. Not a happy start to the story, or a relationship.
It is the story of a carpenter whose betrothed gets pregnant, and not with his child. Again, not a great start to a solid relationship.
It is the story of a baby born in a barn surrounded by the smell of animals and the bodily fluids of birth – no doctors, nurses, midwives or even beloved family matriarch to oversee the birth, to cut the umbilical cord, to wrap the new-born up or to offer rest to the weary mother or hapless father.
A country under occupation, a cruel ruler. No security. No peace. Not a happy setting for a story, or a new family.
The slaughter of innocent children. For the people in Bethlehem, the birth of God would always remind them of the army that massacred their children.
Then Joseph’s frightened little family, flees for their lives to a strange land. Not a happy story.
The likes of this story today are not to be found in the comforts of a starry sanctuary, or in the sparkle of a busy mall, or even in the warmth of a private hospital birthing room.
No, they are instead to be found in Aleppo, at Standing Rock, in the Rust Belt, in homeless shelters [insert relevant current concerns] and yes, in our own homes and in those painful recesses of our own stories; in our own pain. There is room in our Christmas story for fear, disappointment, sorrow and despair.
During Advent, we light the candles of Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. These candles remind us of God’s gifts to us – gifts that we celebrate not because we already have them, but because we and our world so desperately need them.
We need Hope to meet our despair.
We need Love to meet our disappointment, frustration and loneliness.
We need Joy to meet our grief and sorrow.
We need Peace to meet our poor health, our anger, and our fear.
And we need a place where we can simply be: Be with our own pain and suffering and know that we are not alone, that God is with us.
It’s okay to mourn. It’s okay to struggle. When the birth of Jesus was foretold in Isaiah 7:14, the prophet says the name of Jesus will be Emmanuel, which means God with us. Him being with us is a part of His unchanging nature. In His name, there is deliverance, peace, rescue, might, and wisdom. Maybe this holiday season, you simply need to lean on those truths.
Tonight, we remember that God came into the world amid violence, oppression, and despair and brought forth life from that darkness. Tonight, we remember that God is with each one of us in our challenges and suffering. The faithfulness of God ‘s presence in our lives has been proven time and time again. He is with us through difficulty and with us through joy. What hope that gives us! Through it all, in the name of Jesus, don’t forget rejoice! Because God has come to us. That is where our hope comes from. Amen.