Away from the Manger

I live in a small town in rural Ohio. The kind of town that still has a nativity scene in the town square. I’m sure there are people that don’t like it, but, to my knowledge, there haven’t been any nativity grinches making loud complaints or any lawsuits from the ACLU. It’s part of our village tradition and part of our common life. I respect it. However, there was a time–a particular night, in fact–when I failed to show respect for this tradition.

I was in high school and hanging out with friends when we grew restless on that dark December evening. We wanted–needed, even–to get into some mischief. So we put our heads together and soon an idea sprung to our consciousness, as if by revelation. The idea became a mission and that mission was to extract and kidnap the baby Jesus. The baby Jesus of the town’s nativity display, to be clear. No actual babies, Jewish messiahs or otherwise, were to be harmed.

This mission would not be without risks. At least three significant risks were readily apparent:

  1. We could be caught by the townspeople. It was the town square, after all. It was probably the busiest part of town and we were likely to be noticed by anyone driving past.
  2. We could be busted by the cops. Ours was a small town and the fine police officers were vigilant in patrolling its street, not least the small and simple downtown. I’m not sure what the laws are like concerning the stealing of members of the holy family but I’d imagine they came with fairly strict penalties.
  3. We could come under divine wrath. Even if the laws of humanity were not severe, there was the risk of rousing divine anger. The Almighty probably doesn’t look kindly on punk kids making light of the birth of his only begotten son.

Despite the risks, we determined that we were up for the challenge; we were too bored and the mission was too important. So we made a plan and divided up the jobs. As I recall there was one driver, one lookout, and two people tasked with entering the manger and doing the dastardly deed. For legal reasons, I won’t disclose my personal role (I’m not sure about the statute of limitations on these things). Off we went and the mission went fairly smoothly, much to our surprise. Neither townspeople nor police officers witnessed us. We were not struck by lightning and the shepherds didn’t come to life to smack us with their staffs. The target was in our possession, riding safely in a vehicle borrowed from generous parents.

Then, an issue arose. What to do with this ancient near-eastern yet strangely white European baby? Hard to believe that our adolescent minds hadn’t thought that far ahead. Several options were considered but a single solution was agreed upon. Brilliantly, we associated the dear savior’s birth with our dear pastor’s home. If there was anywhere the Christ child would feel comfortable, it was surely the home of our pastor and his family. So, naturally, we left him on the doorsteps of the reverend’s home and hoped for the best. We returned home and drifted to sleep, soundly and with satisfaction.

All would be well. The little lord Jesus was returned to the manger and no crying he made. But thinking back on the incident, I realize that we fulfilled the fears of all the years of many a religious right pundit in the course of a single night–a few minutes, really. We had, quite literally, taken the Christ out of Christmas. 

Obviously, taking the Christ out of Christmas (or keeping him there) has little to do with Nativity scenes in the town square or the teenage rapscallions who profane them. Symbols do matter, to be sure, but other things matter more. What matters more are the relationships we nurture and the justice we seek. Loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, caring for the vulnerable, making peace, practicing forgiveness, releasing rivers of justice, walking humbly with the Lover of this broken world. The stuff of Christmas is the stuff of every other time of the year for folks seeking to live under gospel order.

Still, Advent is more than just a friendly reminder to live the old ways. It challenges us to believe new things are possible, human hearts and social systems can actually change. It challenges us to believe that the Divine Voice is still heard saying “Surprise!” Angels of various kinds are still heard making announcements to the unsuspecting. And if the good news they tell is truly good news for all the people, it’s good news for rural people. Yes, wise men (and women) still seek the Christ child, they are often farmers and ranchers and housekeepers and factor workers.

The pastor who received our stolen gift was wise with his contextual theology and talked about how the birth of Christ happened in a place like Morrow County, Ohio. He said maybe it happened in a place like the barn where his cows, chickens, tractors, and hay bales resided. We even had a Christmas cantata put on by the children and youth called “It All Happened in the Country.” I still remember the words from the applause inspiring song: “It all happened in the country/In a little country town/Country folks and farmers gathered all around.”

winter

I believe strange and sacred things–things of Advent–are still happening in the country. And maybe it’s because we can see the sky from where we live and notice the stars when they shine or the angels when they appear. Maybe it’s because there’s enough quiet to hear when the holy whisper comes with good news. Maybe it’s because we have enough secret hurts and habits that we can’t help but say “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Christ came and came again, and will come again. He will come wherever there is an opening, wherever there is a silent night, open eyes, and listening ears. It matters not whether his plastic or porcelain replica has a place in the town square. It matters not what blasphemous missions are carried out by town pranksters. Thank God…

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