Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Twice I have visited Bethlehem, and three times I have walked from the guest house where I stayed and stooped to enter the dusty interior of the Church of the Nativity. Each time I descended the steps to one side of a gaudy Greek Orthodox altar to the traditional site of Jesus birth.
Neither the church nor the site, often filled with pilgrims armed with cameras, was of much inspiration. A star on the floor marks the spot where he was born. You can reach into the hole at the middle of the star and feel the stone or soul beneath. Dozens of orthodox lanterns cast grimy light across the stone cave. Packed with pilgrims snapping photos, the scene feels cheap and tacky, a dime-store rip off.
Only once did the spot inspire devotion in me and that was long after the tourists left and I returned to pray, sitting on a rock shelf to the side of the holy spot, which I did not find holy at all. I prayed in this birthplace for my daughter whose first pregnancy was in trouble. I prayed for her child to wait his time and be born healthy. My prayers were answered. Ben’s wit and joy never fail to delight me.
It is this which has made this tourist site holy for me, those prayers, that boy and the shine in his mother’s eyes.
But I honestly could not see Mary here, cradling her child. Maybe there were too many people. Maybe the scene was not simple enough. Maybe it was the din of a dozen languages echoing off the stone walls. Maybe if someone had scattered some straw and sheep manure around it would have felt more real.
Maybe if we all could have been quiet for a moment and realized this is the spot where a human soul filled with the wonder of God entered our world and changed everything.
Maybe then I would have felt what I wanted to feel and praised God for the wonder of becoming flesh.
More real to me is the tired Mexican mother sitting on a bench at the shopping mall, cradling her child, nursing him. It is there that I see Mary and Jesus in my world. I see God becoming flesh in a way real and near to me, and not just near … but in me as I feel compassion for her in her weariness and joy in the tenderness of the moment.
For God takes flesh in every human soul, and each time we see the compassion of such holy tenderness we witness again the incarnation of God in our midst … and feel it in our souls.
Every year at Christmas the same vision appears in my imagination. I see Mary and Jesus in the old barn on the farm, huddled among the stanchions where dad and grandpa milked the cows.
I see them there in the first world I inhabited in my childhood. They are real there, making this common place a holy place, my Bethlehem, where God puts on flesh so I can see and feel the joy of his nearness.
Seeing them there, I know … Bethlehem is everywhere.
Pr. David L. Miller
Monday, December 15, 2014
Luke 2:1-7Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the whole inhabited world. This census-- the first -- took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee for Judaea, to David's town called Bethlehem, since he was of David's House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Now it happened that, while they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the living-space.
Rough gravel clatters across
The frozen drive as I walk to
The old barn. Most of it is packed
Solid into the Jo Daviess county soil
That saw my birth here as I
Go to another birth, once more, that
Once more, I may be born.
My footfalls, the only noise
in the evening dark, silence broken
by the cold metal snap of the
latch on the warped red door.
Entering, I enter another world,
Filled with the magic that awakens
My heart to what is always waiting
whenever I take this journey, not
of distance but memory.
It is the woman I first see, no, it
Is her fear, her eyes, wondering
Whether the snap of the latch brings
Friend or threat. She crouches low
By the last wooden stanchion; the
Cows now loose in the field, having
Been milked. The stanchions
Rough cut brown boards worn smooth
On inside edges by the necks of cows
Scratching an itch or straining to reach
The last blades of hay in this manger
Where now lies another food.
Stacks of hay and straw bales make a
Wall behind her so she cannot run
Or hide in the bales where mice rustle
In the silence. But she does not run.
She must be here Just as certainly as
I must be here, waiting, watching for
The rustle of what moves not among
the bales … but in myself.
She sits, watching me, her head turning
Again and again to the child, so recently
Come from the warmth of her
Womb to this common, rude space no one
Would notice as anything more than
An old barn on a half-forgotten farm
Of no particular importance to anyone,
Except to me because every year I come
here … to see him.
She watches him, the child,
Asleep in the straw who does nothing but
Make new-born sounds and awaken me
Once more to wonder that such a child
Born in such a place should mean everything
To me and a world that needs this moment
More than anything else.
The fear-eyed mother keeping watch over
The wrapped child, warm against the cold,
A more or less pathetic scene with no glory
To suggest God or royalty. Yet my soul
Knows an invitation here that is more than
Invitation because it awakens the
Love and compassion it invites, awaking, too,
Awareness that the compassion awakened
Is exactly the salvation the child is promised
To bring. And he does, just lying there, for
I know … standing there, watching them
The soul who kicked gravel across the lot is
larger now and the hand that threw the latch
more gentle for having seen him once more.
Pr. David L. Miller