In the Online Retreat in Everyday Time, we’ve been considering Jesus’ photo album, the people in his life that shaped him, that influenced him, that made him the person he was. This week, we are reflecting on his birth, and what an appropriate time to do so. (It turns out, if you start it when we did that it follows the liturgical year. We started it in September QUITE by accident. How’s THAT for the Holy Spirit at work?) As I read this letter this morning, I thought of my daughter’s birth, which we’ll be celebrating on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God on January 1 (yes, she’s a New Year’s baby – or, as I like to call her, a Mary’s baby). I could feel myself standing in our barn, watching a young girl give birth – and our barn is probably a lot different from where Mary and Joseph actually were. I like the smell of hay, but would I like it while I was in labor, waiting for my baby to arrive? Surely, there are worse places to give birth…but not many. There were animals, so there was heat. There was a place to lay him down.
This week, we find ourselves so close to Christmas. It’s easy to forget that the first Christmas, all those years ago (and let’s release ourselves from the knowledge that it might have been at a different time of the year), was so much more humble that what we will experience. As our kids shout and jump and laugh and sing, as the adults sip eggnog or hot chocolate or wine or cognac, as the paper gets scattered and the tree gets lit…we can forget, even though we have a nativity scene close by, that our celebration is centered around a messy, scary, lonely birth.
Reading this reflection, I found myself near tears. I thought of Mary and Joseph and the amazing people they are, and the example they are to each of us. I felt the tremendous blessing of their presence in my life, and I couldn’t help but think that things aren’t so bad. Ever. When you’re on the right team, there will be suffering and there will be sacrifice. In the end, with the community of saints, you hope to find yourself at the feet of your Savior, tickling his baby feet, watching him sleep contentedly, remembering on December 25 that he was just like us in many ways.
I think it’s the smell of the hay that gets to me the most. I see myself standing in the cold outside the stable, watching through a big opening in the wall. There is little light but somehow I can see everything.
This prayer has been a wonderful journey. This journey has been a wonderful prayer. I watched as Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary was a little afraid of having a baby and almost a little shy around Joseph. But she knew that she loved him and that she could trust him. All of the sharing they had done over the past months as they talked about the pregnancy, his confusion, her unwavering faith, his unwavering faith and his decision to stay with her… all of that had formed a strong bond between them, something much deeper than “newlywed” love.
Now as I pray with the scene, they are in the manger and all I can smell is the hay, wet and musty from the animals. How could you have a baby here, in the wet hay where animal droppings are all over?
What I really want is to go into the barn and help them. Can I? Oh, Jesus, can I let myself pray with my imagination and be unselfconscious enough just to go into the barn?
I walk in and they both seem glad to see me. She is so welcoming and so grateful to have me there. Joseph has been busy clearing a place for her to lie down, and when a big contraction comes, I just hold her hand tightly. But the smell! Jesus, how could you have been born into such a smell?! I tried to get out some fresh hay to scatter on the floor for Mary, but then suddenly she was giving birth and no one but me seemed to care about fresh hay.
And then you were born, into the smelly and wet hay, into the strong hands of Joseph. He wiped your face and cleaned out your nose and eyes and when you suddenly began to wail loudly, they both laughed. I laughed quietly too, but I didn’t want to be in the way at such an intimate moment, so I tried to stay back. Oh, Jesus, my heart is so full! The birth of any child into this kind of place would be overwhelming. But YOU? It’s cold, it smells and where is a bed? Where is a blanket for you? Joseph has wrapped you tightly in his cloak, but you need more.
Then I realize how very tired Mary and Joseph are after their journey and the joy of this night of your birth. As Mary dozes holding you, she opens her eyes again. Would I hold you while she and Joseph sleep? I can’t believe it! I settle quietly into the hay where I won’t disturb them and I hold you in the cloak. I look down at you, smell your baby neck and nuzzle your cheek as I did my own babies. I feel such a love for you and what you have done. You are coming into the world like this – in this incredible poverty in a smelly stable. You are doing this to be with us in the poor and smelly parts of our own lives.
Dear Jesus, help me to feel this tiny-ness of you during the week ahead. Help me to sense your helplessness and to recognize my own helplessness and to surrender to it as you have. Help me to be small in this world and to be here for you, as odd as that sounds, as you are so much here to help me.