Several years ago, Kuya Mark (or was it Ate Nancy?) gave a talk during the A-days Christmas batch… then handed me a photocopy of an article used during the talk. As if in perfect timing with the start of Simbang Gabi, I found the article, neatly folded in the pocket of my handbag.
The God of the Stable: “Here – take Him He is yours”
By Julie A. Collins
Taken from National Jesuit News, December 2000
As Advent melts away and December 25th seems to race towards us, I am reminded of a Christmas lesson one of my students taught me. On the day we were to break for the Christmas holiday, I was shamelessly using a move to stem the tide of pre-vacation euphoria. (Even the best behaved freshmen boys have been known to hang from the ceilings on the last day before Christmas break – and string their teacher up with them! One must have a plan…) The class was viewing the Annunciation and Nativity segments of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”. As the exhausted couple reached the stable and Mary’s labor intensified, I will never forget the look of horror on Scott’s face as he turned to me and whispered in his little Dallas accent, “Mr. Collins – you mean she was in pain? The Blessed Mother gave birth to Jesus in pain?”
“Yes Scott,” as I bent over his incredulous face, “the Blessed Mother was in pain when she delivered Jesus.” “Oh, my God,” the boy breathed. Fifteen years later that question still rumbles in my memory and as Christmas approaches, I touch it again. I see Scott’s face, and know that I have to do as Ignatius of Loyola urges: I have to beg God to let me enter that stable. If I want to touch the God who was born in Bethlehem, I have to come close to poverty, the pain, and the confusion of that night. I have to be willing to let God peel away the neat and tidy Christmas card laminate that covers my imagination and makes the Incarnation neat, tidy and domesticated.
It is none of these things. The incarnation at its most shattering is rooted in God’s vast humility and the scene in the stable shouts that Love will go anywhere, touch any pain, bear any burden to be with the Beloved. The Incarnation reminds us that the God of the universe, who sculpted the Milky Way and flung it into the sky, took shape in the flesh and bone and blood of a woman simple because she said “Yes.” The Incarnation reveals that Love can be desperate, can be willing to take any risk if the Beloved can be saved, found, and grounded in the truth once more.
But to know that Love we have to be willing to come to Bethlehem. And I know I draw back. I don’t want to see it – the panic on Joseph’s face as he fruitlessly begs for shelter, the terror in Mary’s eyes as she wonders if she will die giving birth to this child, the blood on the straw, the stench of the stable, the filfth of the animals. I cling to my Hallmark images because they save me from a God who has chosen to be helpless, a God who even now insists on entering my life enmeshed in the mess, the confusion, and the ordinary disappointments. I want the God of the angel song, I want the God of the Epiphany. The God who rises from the love of two panichked human beings is too challenging, too complex, too close.
Perhaps I am not alone in this. Why are there countless bloody and graphic paintings of Jesus’ death and yet his birth is always portrayed as serene and seraphic? It’s not that I quibble with the angels. I’m sure they were there. But not at first – not visible, not there to magically stem the tide of human fear and human failure.
It’s not that the angelic visitors would blush at the physical, sexual reality of birth. Without body themselves, they would not despise Mary hers. They would witness a man and woman in the most intimate of circumstances. Joseph, who knew it was forbidden by Law for a man to see a woman in labor, bravely fumbling his way through the mysteries of childbirth, begging God to save his wife and son. And Mary, with pain pounding in waves through her barely pubescent body, wondering whatever possessed her to leave Nazareth, yet sure that the good man beside her was the one she needed with her on this mysterious journey.
We have to see this couple before the angels, before the shepherds, before the kinds. We have to see them when all they had was each other and the conviction that, even in the midst of this disaster, their God would not abandon them. Joseph and Mary gave birth to Emmanuel that night because they already knew him. They knew and trusted the One who is always “with us”.
And they knew the God who would come into that stable, come into their fear, come into their own feelings of failure. Mary believed in a God who would be that close, that little, that intimate. She could say to God, “Yes, you may take flesh in me – not because I am worthy but because I know that you can do anything. And if you need me, I am yours.”
Jesus became the God that Joseph and Mary knew. He became the man who God would be when God takes flesh. The tenses are all wrong there of course, because the Logos lives outside of tense, outside of time. But it is my stumbling effort to express the mystery. Even in becoming himself, even in taking flesh and growing up within a human family, God chose the most wonderful cooperation with human beings. It is at the core of our dignity and also at the center of our frustration. God is always choosing to save the world through us.
His reverence to our freedom is breathtaking. God continually flooding us with grace but he never overrides our will. Like Mary and Joseph, we are always and forever free to accept his partnership in the work of salvation or reject it.
Is this a God we can accept? Can we celebrate a God who would choose to enter the world so dependent on human beings? Can we love a God who does not spare us the struggle of salvation? A God who may send us to Bethlehem or to Calvary?
This Christmas I ask myself and wonder if I can be that grown up. Can I be a companion of Jesus or am I secretly wishing for a safer road, a surer outcome? Can I look at the Christmas creche and beg for a share in the human courage that under girds it?
My mind flashes to a hot day in July when I was making the “long retreat” and praying over the Nativity story. As Ignatius Loyola advises, my director had told me to pray for the grace of being placed by God in the gospel scene. I begged for that gift as the prayer period began but not, I confess, with much confidence. As any experienced retreat director knows, the Ignatian “Application of the Senses” seems to occur quite naturally as the retreatant moves through the Spiritual Exercises. But for some people, myself included, this use of imagination does not always produce a “visit” to the scene itself.
But on this morning in July, something broke open and there I was, at the mouth of the cave, cautiously peering in at the couple. The agony of birth had passed and an exhausted, happy glow enveloped them both as Mary cooed over the baby and nursed him. Suddenly, she looked up, smiled and in the most familiar way said: “Joseph, look it’s Julie. Julie, come in.” In stunned silence I stood rooted to the spot until Jospeh came over to me, took me gently by the arm and led me to where Mary was seated with Jesus. She held him up to me with the delight of any mother and said, “Here – take him. He is yours.” I drew back, but she only chuckled and slipped the baby into my arms. As I looked down all I could see was his tiny, fuzzy head, nestled in the crook of my arm.
The God of the universe, in my arms, in my hands, in my power – waiting, always waiting, for my “Yes”. My face was drenched with tears.
This is the miracle of Christmas – this is Love enfleshed. In a frail but tender human “Yes”. In a man, in a woman, a baby struggling to be born. And so are we – so are we. We struggle to be born and it is this humble God, our God of the stable, who gives birth to us – with our “Yes” – over and over again. Merry Christmas.