Photo credit: “Nativity tree2011” by Jeff Weese – Flickr: Nativity. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_tree2011.jpg#/media/File:Nativity_tree2011.jpg
It didn’t feel much like Christmas. I had done all the right things. The Christmas lights and Christmas tree were up. I had sampled the wonderful special Christmas cookies and treats. I had been to Christmas concerts and listened to Christmas music. My shopping was done and the gifts were wrapped. But, none of the usual things that bring me joy and put me in the Christmas spirit were working.
I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was because I was grieving the loss of one of the true ambassadors in the congregation. Perhaps it was because I was aware of my father’s grave illness. Perhaps I was just all wrapped up in myself.
What I did know was that it was going to be a busy night. You could see for miles even though it was dark. A wave of nervousness gripped my stomach as I drove along the country road. I should have known better than to try an experiment at this time of the year. What was I thinking adding an additional service to an already overly busy time of the year?
The light reflecting off the snow was illuminated the landscape once your eyes adjusted. Here and there you could see the lights of a farm place in the distance. Farms are not close together in rural South Dakota. It had been relatively easy to find a farmer with an empty barn. Other farmers had volunteered to bring a few cattle and sheep. Someone had even arranged for there to be a donkey. Volunteers had come forward to dress up as of the Christmas characters. Everything was set.
Now, I worried no one would come. A reporter for the Brookings Register, a local newspaper had heard about what we were doing and told she was coming with her photographer. It was nearly 20 below and there was a 20 mile an hour wind whipping across the prairie. It was too late to make any changes now. What would be would be.
I had arrived early. I checked on the arrangements and noticed for the first time that the boards on the barn had gaps between the boards allowing the cold wind to swoop in. A local farmer had generously provided a 50,000 BTU propane heater and it was blasting away from a corner in the back. Straw had been spread liberally on the floor. The barn was filled with the smell of straw and hay and old wood.
Gradually people began to arrive. We began in prayer, and as we read the familiar Christmas story, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” the dressed up characters walked in and took their places as around the cattle trough. Then a door open from the hay mount and angels suspended on sturdy ropes swooped down as we heard the familiar announcement: Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ At one point a curious mouse poked its head out from between the staked bales of hay and straw.
About 80 people had come – it was nearly half of my normal attendance and we had filled the small barn. It was a great turnout for that time and place. The photographer from the Brookings register noticed it and captured a wonderful shot of the characters and the mouse.
It was a very simple service. It lasted only about 30 minutes. We read the Christmas story and sang silent night acapella. We had no chairs – let alone pews. There were no Christmas lights or decorations – no soaring music or special foods. Just people huddled together standing there in the cold, thankful to be out of the wind, hungry to hear the familiar story.
As I drove back along the lonely country road a profound sense of peace came over me. The service had been a success. While relieved and happy about that, it was not the source of the peace. The sheer simplicity of the service spoke to a deep place within me. God had become profoundly present in the ordinary – not because of anything we did – but rather through the absence of what we did.
The fact that there was nothing to enhance the old barn: no decorations or seating, the barn struggled to even serve as a shelter from the cold – somehow focused the story and made real the ordinariness of it all. It was the commonness of the setting, and the simplicity of the story that allowed me to experience in a profound way the message that God comes in the midst of everyday life.
The sign for the shepherds was so common place at the time it is hardly a sign at all. You will find a babe wrapped in bands of cloth lying in a manger. It is hard for us to hear these words apart from your 20th Century experience. But, babies in Jesus time were born at home – not in hospitals. All babies at the time were wrapped in bands of cloth after they were born. It wasn’t all that unusual for poor people and animals to bed down together if an inn was crowded.
In providing the details about Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, Luke is not only locating Jesus birth in history, he is reminding his readers that Jesus was born into a world of racial tension, violence, oppression, and economic hardship.The Romans were an outside, racially different, occupational force that ruled with “shock and awe” and brute force. If you lived at the time of Jesus and took a look around you there was little reason to believe God was active.
I found myself thinking a lot about this simple service in the barn this year. Not because I don’t love the Christmas music, the lights and decorations, the food and festivities, the wrapping paper and presents, or the opportunity to spend time with loved ones. It is all good. I love it all.
But, like that year, it just wasn’t enough. I don’t know if it was the rising threat of terror, or the awareness of racial tension, uneasiness about the warm winter, or the personal stories of illness, pain, suffering, and brokenness that have been shared – but the Christmas spirit has been harder to capture for me this year.
There is this great tension in Christmas. We give witness to the mystery and miracle of God coming in the flesh – breaking into our regular, ordinary routine and commonplace lives. And then we do everything we can to try to make Christmas extra-ordinary.
I get it. It is our way of seeking to acknowledge and somehow draw attention to – and give witness to – God’s presence. It is a natural response to the awe and wonder of what God has done. The angels sang when they gave the message of Jesus birth to the shepherds. It was the only proper response!
And yet, I wonder if in our attempts to acknowledge God’s presence we give confused and think that we can summon it. That somehow with all of our fuss and festivities we can conjure up the wonder and awe – we are tempted to believe that extravagance and overindulgence we will somehow manufacture in us a Christmas spirit. It is any wonder then that we feel let down or disillusioned when it doesn’t work? Is it any wonder then if we focus on ourselves, or on the state of the world around us, that we find ourselves discouraged or disheartened?
But what if God was at work in, with, under, through, and in spite of what we see? What if God’s coming wasn’t about us – but about God? What if God has chosen to come in such a common, ordinary, and understated way that it can be hard for us to recognize or experience?
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’