What Child Is This?

Paula Northwood December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

Have you been there? Peering over the edge of a cradle? Bending over a crib to take a peek at a child, newly born, simply to see what he or she looks like? It may have been a new sister or brother, a niece or nephew, or your own child, birthed or adopted, and you just needed to take another peek. What kind of child is this?

Here we are again, at the edge of a manger, peering in and asking, “What child is this?” What’s so compelling about this child, this story? Or maybe you have grown cynical and you have stopped looking because you think you know what’s there and you simply go through the motions. You do it for the kids or grandkids or some nostalgic hope against hope. Is it possible to hear this story anew?

One of my favorite poems this time of year is “Star Silver,” by Carl Sandburg.

The silver of one star
plays cross-lights against pine green

And the play of this silver
crosswise against the green
Is an old story . . .
thousands of years.

And sheep grazers on the hills by night
Watching the woolly four-footed ramblers
Watching a single silver star—
Why does this story never wear out?

And a baby, slung in a feed-box
Back in a barn in a Bethlehem slum,
A baby’s first cry mixing with the crunch
Of a mule’s teeth on Bethlehem Christmas corn,
Baby fists, softer than snowflakes of Norway,

The vagabond mother of Christ
And the vagabond men of wisdom
All in a barn on a winter night
And a baby there in swaddling clothes on hay—
Why does this story never wear out?

The sheen of it all
Is a star silver and a pine green
For the heart of a child asking a story.
The red and hungry, red and hankering heart
Calling for cross-lights of silver and green.

Why does this story never wear out? I imagine that part of the reason is that we have built up ritual around it. The lighting of candles, the hanging of the greens, the special songs and the giving of gifts are the rituals of this season. Most rituals, and even sacraments, are acts of breathtaking simplicity: a candle lit, a simple prayer, a sip of wine and piece of bread, a single breath in meditation, a sprinkling of water on the forehead, an exchange of rings, a kind word, a blessing, a story repeated, again and again. Any of these in a moment of mindfulness may open doors of our spiritual perception and has the potential to bring nourishment and delight.

Joseph Campbell writes in Reflections on the Art of Living that ritual introduces you to the meaning of what’s going on. A ritual is an invitation to dig deeper for meaning. To tell the same story each year, to mark the return of the light in the dead of winter, to infuse hope in the midst of despair, to turn our face to the babe in the manger gives us dreams of possibility.

Author and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes also points out that it is in the remembering and telling that we find healing. Even inaccurate stories have the power to heal. We know that many stories in the Bible are not factually accurate but that they hold a far greater truth. The point is the story. If the story no longer gives us hope, or solace, or comfort or answers to our questions, then the church has failed to interpret the story and the message in a way that keeps it vital and transformative. The institutional church has failed to carry the story in a way that not only speaks to our intellect but also, and maybe more importantly, to our hearts. How can we tell the story anew? How can we hear this story as if for the first time? The only way I know is to embody the story. To look at the characters of the story and the ways that each one responds to the manger, we find that they embody different archetypal ways of relating. These archetypes are universal and timeless.

Tonight, let our goal be to embody the entire story, to embody spirit in human form, not just transcendent moments but also the fear, rejection, darkness and doubt. Our tendency, when we read any story, is to identify with the noble, heroic characters, but all the characters are a part of our collective consciousness—our soul. What happens if we look at the innkeeper, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds and the Magi as archetypes?

“The child was born in a manger because there was no room in the inn.” The innkeeper is weary, exhausted and can’t take in any more. There is a huge event in town, maybe a Super Bowl. There are too many people, too many demands, and he is stressed. Who hasn’t been there? Who hasn’t given an irritated, quick response to a simple question? “No, I don’t have any room, any more time or any more energy.” But the innkeeper takes another look; maybe Mary steps out from behind Joseph. He thinks, “Oh, Lordy, I can’t put them out on the street.” Out of exhaustion and chaos, the innkeeper gets creative and finds a warm, safe place, a meager stable. I imagine that later he checks on this young couple. The stable door creaks as he pushes it open just a crack and peers into the manager and smiles. Creativity out of chaos.

“And Joseph had in his mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph, the fearful father, has doubts about whether this child is his. He is afraid of what people will think of him. Worried about being judged, he lets that little seed of fear grow and fester. Joseph feels vulnerable. He needs to let Mary go. But God speaks to him through a dream, inviting him to let go of his anxiety and lay down his fear. Joseph picks up the mantle of courage and stands true to his calling to be a loving and kind father. He holds this child tenderly. Courage comes out of doubt and vulnerability.

“And she gave birth to a son.” The mother archetype is life-giving and nurturing. Mary . . . there is no story without Mary. She is receptive and faithful, pregnant with possibility. She is the mirror that shows us how to be receptive to the Spirit. The humility, the faithfulness, the nurturance, the strength and the earthiness are some of the feminine qualities she brings to the story. What happens when we are open and available? New life birthed from receptivity.

“And there were shepherds, keeping watch.” The shepherds represent the ordinary; commoners performing simple but necessary tasks: watching and waiting, patiently caring for the lambs and sheep. Throughout our lives we need shepherding, we need those who care for us and guide and protect us. And there are times when we shepherd others and are given the responsibility to care for others. It can be exhausting work, and it takes compassionate care and commitment. From compassionate care comes deep commitment.

“And Magi came from the east.” The sages, the wise ones, are called by Herod to tell him where this babe was born. They know he means to kill this new child. But the wise ones do not betray the child and, instead, make the journey to bring their gifts. How often do we stifle a new idea or a new way of doing things? We kill it before it even has a chance. What if we brought our whole selves to this life with all of our gifts? From sharing our lives comes wholeness.

Creativity out of chaos, courage out of vulnerability, new life birthed from receptivity, compassionate care becoming deeper commitment, and from sharing our lives comes wholeness . . . such is the manifold power that can emerge from one story!

You may be having a tough time this holiday season for a variety of reasons: the loss of a loved one, a lost job, a miscarriage, a broken dream or relationship, infertility and disappointments. We as a church have experienced some challenges and difficulties, but there is hope. It is in the remembering and the telling of our story in God’s story that we begin to heal. Peering over the edge of the manger gets us in touch with the mystery and paradox of this story. It provides liminal time to contemplate the ultimate mystery, the awesome love of God birthed in a human baby.

Look into the mystery of the manger with curiosity, peer into the paradox of God-with-Us, Immanuel. Norma Rae Hunt, a pastor in Saint Paul, writes, “Remember to trust the paradox.”

“Remember to trust . . . that deep doubt calls forth deeper faith
That strength is rooted in what is thought to be weaknesses
That what is lost will be found and found again
That power shared is multiplied, not diminished
That pain is the prelude to healing
That the sacred is carefully folded into the ordinary.”

Over 30 years ago, I accompanied a group of teenagers from Kansas to the barrios of Colombia to participate in a service project. For a few days we worked in a daycare in a poverty-stricken area. It was heart-wrenching because many of the children were street children. They had no family and no place to call home. One of the teenagers from my group was holding a toddler whose face was covered with sores. She wiped his nose and asked his name. He replied, “Jesu.” This lanky kid from Kansas looked at me with wide-eyed surprise. She didn’t know that in some cultures they name their children Jesus. She was holding Jesus. In that moment, the Jesus story became real, for whenever you help the least of these you are touching the divine.

Indeed, this story does not wear out. On this Christmas Eve, let the story become real. Which character speaks to you? To whom are you drawn? What message do they have for you? Open your heart to a different way of experiencing the story, open your ears to a new way to hear the story, open your mind to a fresh way of thinking, open your spirit to a blossoming of possibility, open your life to a ritual that feeds transformation.

Feel your soul kneel slowly before the sacredness of this moment . . . know that what wounds us the deepest has the power to bless us most profoundly, know that our doubts of faith have the power to bring us seeking answers . . . come to the edge of the manger. What do you see? What child is this?