Manger as Metaphor: Musings in Advent
Today marks the beginning of Advent……the most wonderful time of the year according to the popular Christmas song…….if so, then why do many of us groan when the trappings of Christmas begin to appear…..”this again…….so soon? As a season of the church year, Advent dates to the early centuries of Christianity. It is meant to be a time of personal preparation for welcoming the Three Comings of Christ: ·
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem ·
God indwelling in our hearts ·
A new world order with the Holy Spirit prevailing. Today’s Gospel reading was written by Mark who is considered to be the earliest of the gospel writers. His writing is muscular and threatening, even apocalyptic with portent of devastation and catastrophic events for which his readers need to be prepared. His style calls forth compliance with Christ’s teachings by frightening his readers. It was the style of the time and it reflected the perils of the world in which Mark lived.
There had been total devastation of the Temple in Jerusalem and a Roman guard who accidentally dozed off on his watch was punished with execution. Life was very uncertain and they were tough times. Thus, the early advent season was a time of rigorous prayer and fasting from dawn ‘til dusk through all four weeks. Advent ended with a great fast that started at sunrise Christmas Eve and was finally broken by a feast after worship on Christmas Day.
The practices of Advent were grueling but they reflected the perilous times from which they were developed. Marks’ writing may have been threatening, but like every apocalypse, there is something hidden, something in fact that is better that rises out of the devastation. Mark was leading us to see that a spirit-centered life was the only solution to see us through the rigors of our earthly lives.
In 2017, we still face many similar perils to Mark’s time. We aren’t facing the threat of ethnic cleansing as is happening in Myanmar right now, nor are we living the fear of annihilation by volcanic eruption as are the people in Bali. But we do face the possibilities of debilitating diseases, economic collapse, terrorism and earthquake and this past summer many thousands of people in our province lost their homes and possessions to forest fires. We have homelessness, addictions and hunger right here among us and it is still true that only a spirit-centered life will enable us to handle these challenges in a better way.
As the rigors of the early Advents relaxed, we developed other practices to help us recognize our yearning to experience conscious contact with God and prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Advent, as the beginning of the church’s year, is the opportunity to “set out as you mean to continue” to fully appreciate and apprehend the gifts and meanings of the nativity in our daily lives. To assist with our preparations, we developed Advent calendars to pace our preparation. We placed Advent wreaths in our churches and our homes as visual reminders of the main themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love Each Sunday was assigned one of these four themes as the focus of spiritual reflection and today is the Sunday of Hope. In addition to Advent Calendars and wreaths every Christian church and many Christian homes placed Manger scenes prominently to stimulate our reflections.
Manger scenes depict the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth and they bring the Nativity story to life. In them we see a cozy family scene of warmth and love enjoyed, also, by the animals with which Mary and Joseph shared the barn. The entire scene is awash in silver light from the Star of Wonder. We usually see the manger scene as a factual representation of events, but I am going to invite you to consider it quite differently.
I am asking you to think about the Manger scene as a metaphor for our lives. A metaphor is a representation of something much bigger or too abstract to be communicated in mere words. Lets consider for a moment that the Nativity scene is actually a reflection of our humanity and our human limitations in receiving the light of Christ.
So, who are the innkeepers who refused entry to the Holy Family? Perhaps they are present day people who use others for their own personal gain. Perhaps they are unscrupulous officials who demand increasingly higher taxes on the fruits of their citizen’s labours. Or, they could be anyone who disparages, discounts or denies the need for a spiritual life while aggressively pursuing the mindless pleasures of the world. Or, they could be you or me when we lose our way and stray from our values and beliefs and deny or doubt the existence of God. Those of us who profess a faith tradition recognize the yearning for contact with God; but do we always welcome Spirit through the front door?
Are we the innkeeper who allowed the Holy Family to stay in the stable in the back? Are we that innkeeper when we keep God peripheral to our lives or allow spirit space in our hearts and minds only when it suits or worse, only when we need it? Where is the Inn? Could it possibly be our hearts? Are our hearts ever too full to make space for God’s son? And why was it that the spirit of love and light was birthed in a stable at night: a place that was undoubtedly dark, cold, uncomfortable and malodourous at best? Could it be because many of us only allow the healing light of God’s love to seep through when we are most despairing, feel the least worthy or have hit rock bottom? The circumstances of the stable serve to remind us that in our dark nights of the soul we are the most amenable to God’s help, which is always present if we but let it.
And, why do we depict the animals of the barn in silent reverence at the birth? Could it be that Christ was birthed amongst the animals to show us our interdependence with them? Is it meant to teach us that while animals serve us, we are responsible for their care and keeping? Does the prominence of the adoring animals in the nativity scene serve to remind us that all animals and also our environment are a sacred trust on which our very survival relies? Manger scenes often include angels. While it is easy to accept that angels would be present at the birth of God into the world, could it also mean that we all have guardian angels that we can call upon when we need protection and help?
Or perhaps it symbolizes that there are angels quietly looking after us to see us through on our human journeys? According to the story, the Christmas star led the wise men across desserts and through danger to acknowledge the fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus’ birth. Is it also possible that star symbolizes the constancy of the path home to God for each of us?
Could it be a visual reminder that that we can always rely on that star to find our way through the darkness, or when clouds or daylight hides its light? And finally, let us consider the infant Jesus. Why did God manifest into the world as an infant, born into the love of a mother and father who protected and nurtured him? Could it be that the Holy Family symbolizes that each of us is a child of God and that we are loved totally and unconditionally? Is this family our assurance of God’s faithfulness at all times?
Does it possibly signify that we are safest when we maintain close contact with God? Or perhaps it signifies that the difficulties we encounter in our lives occur or are made worse because we have strayed from our spiritual homes? Is the only way to surmount our life’s difficulties to return home to the presence of God? Now that you’ve had a chance to ponder these ideas, let’s take a look at why they need to be considered in the here and now. How far we have deviated from the origins of advent. Our increasing secularism has paralleled a rise in consumerism that I think hides a great hole in our souls that we are trying to fill. We have idealized a consumer driven image of Christmas that emerged in the 20th century.
In North America Santa Claus who, incidentally, was created in the marketing department of the Coca Cola Company replaced St. Nicholas. The real St. Nicholas, was the Bishop of Myra which is in present day Turkey. He used all his personal wealth to support the poor. He was the original gift-giver who left coins in homes where poverty meant that starvation was a real possibility. Santa became our modern gift giver but only for the “good children”. Our Christmas greeting cards present an image of Christmas celebrated in warm, cozy homes, safe from the stark reality of the elements. We see tables laden with abundant food, drink and surrounded by multi-generational families who are all enjoying health and happiness….and all, who incidentally, get along with each other. If your life or your family does not resemble these pictures, then by implication you are doing it wrong and you are excluded from the revelry and also from the joy that Christmas is all about. This image of Christmas actually excludes many in our society.
So, why have we become so attached, even addicted, to the superficiality of Christmas? Why is it so embedded in our culture? We know that our current madness is not what Christmas is meant to be about, but it is hard not to be influenced by our world. We get stuck being creatures “of” our customs and it is difficult to find our way out.
But we can’t fill our spiritual needs with material things. Our collective consciousness recognizes that we have deviated from the original meaning, which is why we have special “Blue Christmas” services for those who feel they don’t fit the mainstream of our culture. Songs like “The Little Drummer Boy” have such appeal because we should be welcoming each person to give according to their talents and ability. Our spirits are assuaged by heartwarming stories of lovers who give up their most cherished possessions to buy gifts for one another. Our hearts recognize the poignancy of stories like the “Little Match Girl” and we recognize that we need to live a more inclusive life and create a more inclusive community. We yearn to have these ideals reflected in the Christmases of our lives. I don’t believe that any of this exclusion was intentional, but it is a fine example of what happens when we lose Spirit as the pole star of our lives.
Without an intentional contemplative practice, it is easy to be swept along by the currents of our society and lose track that Christmas is about embracing the greatest gift that man has ever received and it is a gift for all to cherish regardless of economic or social circumstances. I found myself getting caught in this trap a few years ago as my children were entering adulthood and moving into their own lives. I lost interest in Christmas and I felt guilty about that because I had so many blessings for which to be thankful. Through my contemplative prayer I came to realize that I was stuck in a vision of pyjama-clad children happily playing around the tree on Christmas morning as the only Christmas worth having.
I needed to grieve that stage of my life and let it go so that I could embrace new opportunities that I was missing while stuck in the past. I imagine that I am not that different from many of you here. I suspect that each of us has allowed the world to own us from time to time. The way out of this is to establish a daily practice of contemplative prayer. It is a discipline but its rewards are legion. All that is asked of us is that we show up, be willing to sit in silence and allow our minds to turn off the noise of the world. Settling into silence is restful, energizing, healing and restorative and will quiet the over-stimulation of our noisy lives and allow us to enter the presence of spirit. Start with 10 minutes a day. This is a great beginning which will lengthen naturally as you increase in skill.
Contemplative prayer is when you sit in the presence of God and listen to God’s answers and urgings for your lives. Intercessory prayer is what we are most familiar with and that is when we ask God to help us or someone else. This parish has many excellent teachers who have well established contemplative prayer practices: Patrick, Alison Brookfield, Madeline Cooper, Deborah Foster and others. Forgive me if I have missed anyone. I encourage you to learn from them. The rewards are far beyond anything you can imagine. You will be in contact with the divine, from your heart to God’s. You will become the best version of you as God directs you to be. You will become more content and less attracted by the superficiality of the culture around you. You will use the world and its attractions to serve God rather than using them to satisfy the yearning in your soul that only conscious contact with spirit can provide. When you align your life with God’s will, you will become right with Christmas. You will experience the Hope, Peace, Joy and Love that is Christmas and the symbolism of our Christmas trees, gift giving and manger scenes will keep our hearts focused on the greatest gift of all. Contemplative prayer will allow you to realize the truth of the words of St. Paul from our reading today: “For in him you have been enriched in every way – with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge-God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you”.
Contemplative prayer will allow you to “keep watch” as exhorted by Mark. It will sustain you through bad times and enhance the good ones. It will bring you home and prepare you to fully realize the words of St. Ireneas from the 2nd century: The Glory of God is man fully alive and man fully alive is the life of God. If you start or maintain a practice of contemplative prayer this Advent you will be prepared to fully celebrate two of the three comings of Christ: you will celebrate Jesus’ birth in an entirely new way and you will have the gift of the presence of God in your heart going forward. If each of us does that, we will be even closer to celebrating the third coming of Christ: the presence of God prevailing in the world. When that happens, a new world order will be in evidence.
This is the work of Advent. This is the Hope of Christmas. This is the most wonderful time of the year. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ this day. May all praise be to God. Amen.
By Carolyn Iker