OpinionsBreaking BreadWhen God comes into our stables

When God comes into our stables

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In our Scripture, we are told that the shepherds saw the baby wrapped in bands of cloth lying in a manger. That means that what they saw was a newly-born baby in a stable.

What do you know about stables? For city people, I guess they would not know much about stables. But for those who grew up in the barrio or the farms, most likely they would know that stables are not pretty places, especially here in the Philippines.

A stable here in the country is most likely a lean-to or an under-the-house contraption. It is a place for animals, where the lighting is not that bright.

In the Middle East, a stable can be a small cave.  When you walk into a stable, you have to hold your breath as you can smell the stench of cattle or carabao dung, the smell of animals, and other kinds of smells.

However, every Christmas, stables take on a different image. Instead of the dark, grimy, smelly places that they really are, we picture stables as much more socially-acceptable, and probably, a little romantic.

During this season, we see in people’s homes manger scenes — some made of wood, some plastic, some ceramic, some papier-mâché.  They are displayed on top of coffee tables or under the tree to help us remember the coming of God in human flesh, the birth of the baby Jesus.

The reason it is romantic is the same as so many things we make romantic— they are not real. To be quite honest, our popular picture of that manger scene is wildly inaccurate.

Be that as it may, we do the Christmas story an injustice by trying to pretty it up.  But I do not think God wanted it to be pretty. If God had wanted it pretty, it would have been handled differently.

For years, we heard that God could have chosen a palace. After all, Jesus is the King of kings, and Lord of lords. But if the reason for steering clear of palaces was simply not to scare us off with too much majesty, or to demonstrate humility, there could have been some middle ground.  Some place decent, at least; some place that smelled a little better. But God decided that it had to be a room shared with animals — dark, grimy, smelly.

 

I

I think I know why God chose a manger for that miraculous birth. It was not just to convey some image of humility. I think the message was that God would be available to us even in the most putrid circumstances we could imagine, those circumstances when we would normally feel that God would stay away.

The trouble with stables is not that they are dark and dirty and smelly — for that is the nature of a stable. The trouble with stables is that there are so many of them.  They are everywhere, not just in Bethlehem.

They are everywhere when people feel they have reached the end of the line, when there seems no more choices, no more room they can stay in for the evening, when all that is left is just desperately to hang on. When people have lost a loved one; when one gets a call from the doctor who tells him that there is nothing much that can be done; when the relationship with a member of the family or a close friend gets sour; or when one is informed by the ATM he has no more money in his bank account.

However, I believe that the story of Christmas is a reminder that we are not alone in our stables.  Emmanuel, God is with us — in those dingy and dreary places that we are in.  God is there in those times of our lives when it seems that everything is wrong, when all seems to be in darkness, when things just stink, and we want to get out of it but cannot.  These are precisely the times when we need God the most.

The Christmas story tells us that it is in those places that God is there with us!  And the reason is not because we are good, but that God wants to be there with us because of His great love! Amazing is God’s love.

Will God lead us out of the stable? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Christmas tells us that even in those smelly stables, it will turn out to be something or some place good for God’s children because God is with us.

We might not be able to see that good for a time, but we can count on the certainty of God’s promise.

More than that, we can count on the certainty of God’s presence. It may be a stable or it may be one of many stables we experience, but God is there!

As we go home for Christmas eve, we will walk into our living rooms, our dining rooms and kitchens, and will be confronted with an array of delights that signify celebration. We may see the colored lights on the Christmas tree. We may see the bright-colored decorations. We may smell the baked goods that make our mouths water. We may smell the humba or the adobo or the ham. We may see the suman or the biko on the table for our Noche Buena.

But after all these, a few days from Christmas eve, we are brought back to the sights and sounds and smells of stables. And if they are your real life, the good news is that those are the real sights and sounds and smells into which our Savior came, and comes back, and comes back again to be with us.

 

II

However, to be able to experience Jesus in our dingy stables, we need to open our eyes and our hearts to His presence.

You know, from reading the story of the birth of Jesus, I wonder what I would have heard had I been there that night. Would I have heard the choirs of angels singing? Or simply the sounds of barn yard animals shifting around? Would I have seen the star in the sky that night? Or simply the two poor and anxious parents?  Would I have understood the hushed silence of the divine presence? Or simply the chill of a cold east wind?  Would I have understood the message of Emmanuel, God with us? Or would the cosmic implications of that evening merely passed me by?

I am convinced that two people who had been there that night in Bethlehem might have heard, and seen two entirely different scenes. I believe this because that is how life is.  God never presents himself in revelation in a manner in which we are forced to believe.  We are always left with an option — for that is God’s way.  Thus, one person can say, “It is a miracle!” while another says, “It is a coincidence.”

Obviously, very few people in Palestine saw and heard and understood what actually took place that night. The choir of angels singing might have been drowned out by the haggling and trading going on in the Jerusalem market. The pagan astrologers from the East were the only ones who paid attention to the bright star in the sky; not even the high priest.  If anyone did see Mary and Joseph on that most fateful night, they may have only been too preoccupied with their own problems to offer any assistance.

In one of the All in the Family episodes that aired some years ago, Edith and Archie were attending her high school class reunion. She encounters an old classmate by the name of Buck who, unlike his earlier days, had now become excessively obese.  Edith and Buck have a delightful conversation about old times, and the things they did together, but remarkably, she does not seem to notice how extremely heavy Buck has become. Later, when Edith and Archie were talking, she says in her whiny voice, “Archie, ain’t Buck a beautiful person?” Archie looks at her with a disgusted expression, and says: “You are a pip, Edith, you know that!  You and I look at the same guy, and you see a beautiful person, and I see a blimp.” She gets a puzzled expression on her face, and says something unknowingly profound, “Yeah, ain’t it too bad!”

You know, what we see, and what we hear in life depends not upon the events but rather on who we are as people.  It is not what is out there, but what is inside of us.

“Oh,” you say, “if I had been there at Bethlehem that night, I would have seen it. I would have understood.”

Would you? Ask yourself what you saw this Christmas season. When you did your Christmas shopping, did you see only hordes of people in the stores? Or did you notice the worried expressions in some of their faces? Worried because they are facing this Christmas not knowing how they are going to make ends meet. Maybe the money that they borrowed from the credit union had already been spent.

Did you hear only the blasts of music and carols from the stores? Or did you hear the silent sighs of the lonely and the bereaved who may be dreading Christmas because it accentuates their loneliness?

And amid the sounds of honking horns, did you hear the faint sound of laughter coming from somewhere because they have been recipients of the Putos sa Kalipay or the Rural Pastors’ Fund?

Too often, what we see and what we hear are not dependent upon the event itself, but upon ourselves. If you did hear the cry from the lonely or the laughter of poor children, then you might just have seen the events that took place in Bethlehem that night. If you lacked that spiritual seeing and listening, then you probably would have been with the 99 percent who were actually present, but who saw or heard nothing out of the ordinary.

In the end, perhaps one of our carols says it best: No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin. Where meek souls shall receive him still, the dear Christ-child enters in.

In this season of giving, let me share with you this story. There was a Catholic nun who was leaving a community in Africa where she had served for over 10 years. As she was leaving, a young man came up to her, and said, “I have a gift” and gave her a seashell. She adored it, and thanked him. “Where did you get it?” she asked.  He told her he had gone to the ocean, and got it. “That is a hundred miles away! How did you get there?” He said he walked. “Why did you go to this trouble?” she shyly asked. He said, “The trouble is part of the gift.”  

The gifts we give, whether they are flashlights or scented candles or coffee mugs, are in a way important.  But all these are small tokens compared to the real generosity of the season. Christmas is ultimately about our God whose giving included part of Himself, through a baby born in a stable, to enter into our world of stables.  Through the Christ-child, we have life, we know life, and we share life.

And God came to us not because we deserve it, but because of God’s love for us.  Thanks be to God.

___________________________________

Author’s email: piajonathan@yahoo.com

 

 

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