What Child Is This?
A Sunday School teacher had her second grade class draw a picture of the nativity. A seven year old girl sketched it this way: Above the stable shines a crooked star of Bethlehem, and to one side an angel with what looks like butterfly wings hovers happily. On the other side is a donkey, looking as sturdy as a 20 year old mule. The donkey, too, wears a halo on its head. The camel has three humps, so that all three wise men can ride comfortably. A sort of oriental Greyhound bus. Mary, in her bathrobe, kneels and watches in adoration. Joseph is at work–like all fathers, all the time--the little girl explains to her teacher. Jesus lies in the manger, smiling broadly, his feet up in the air, “because he’s just had his diaper changed,” the young artist explains.
She has drawn a pretty good picture of it, I think. It was a very earthy scene. It was a cave of some sort, where the animals gathered to be fed, and she laid him in a manger, which is where the straw was placed. Thus, the bread of life was born in the feed box of animals. It had to be a little smelly....smelling of beasts, the steam rising from their coats on a cold night, smelling of dung and hay. There couldn’t have been much privacy for a teenage girl, in labor, people and animals milling about nearby. And then there was a cry, and a baby was born, all wrinkled and covered with water and blood, like all babies in all times and places.
Luke tells us that his first visitors were shepherds. Shepherds could not keep the Jewish ceremonial laws, all the washing and fastidious rule-keeping that made one pure. They were constantly dirty from handling animals. They couldn’t go to the temple; they were no friends of God, that’s for sure, cut off from all the Jewish rituals that really matter. And the wandering band of astrologists that Matthew writes about–well they were a pagan and superstitious lot. Hardly propitious visitors.
Everyone back then knew where God was. God was present in the magic and mystery of the temple, the great Herodian temple about six miles away in Jerusalem. There in the incense and the chants, the gold and glitter, in the carved altar, the splendor of priestly robes and majestic procession–there was the dwelling place of the Eternal and Holy God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who uttered the word, let there be light, and there was light.
And off in Bethlehem that night long ago there was born a bawling baby in a dirty cave. And we have the audacity to look at that baby, and we can hardly choke the words out of our mouth, but we do, we do, we look at that baby, and say: “God!” “God with us.”