“Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through,
The cross he bore, for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe the Son of Mary.”
-What Child Is This, William Chatterton Dix
A baby born on an altar! What a horrific, unthinkable and ghastly thing. The God of the galaxies imprisoned in the fragile flesh and bones of an infant. A girl giving birth, for the first time, banished in her fear and exhaustion to the mud and shit of a stable floor. Where is the beauty? Where are the twinkling lights and soft music? Where is the gently falling snow?
It is December 21st, and all around me I see manger scenes. I can literally see two from where I sit now. Mostly they look like some terrible mid-east earthquake disaster landscape...a shepherd is trapped under a donkey, an unfortunate wise man strewn across Joseph and an angel, the roof caved in upon Mary and poor Buzz Lightyear. The kids keep knockin’ em down like bowling pins, and I keep setting them right back up. A bit desperately, I might add. Even though they are meant for play, I rush to right the sacred scene over and over again. Mary and Joseph here. Jesus in the center. Wise men (still traveling) on the left, and shepherds and their sheep on the right. The angel rests on top. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. The lights go here, the tree goes there, the stockings are hung, and my Jesus story is laid out before me…all is calm, all is bright.
Except that it isn’t, and it wasn’t. I keep hustling to make the picture perfect when it was so far from that. It was probably terrible. It was tedious pregnant travel, followed by a lonely, unassisted labor. It was dirty and scary, and the holy family was forgotten when they needed help, and then were surrounded by strangers when they probably wanted to be alone. And in the hay was our Jesus; this is how our Savior entered the world. Sacrifice was woven into his fabric from the very first breath. God incarnate sounds so magical. And it is, but it is also God trapped in baby skin, destined for death.
In this moment I meditate on the sorrow of the incarnation. Jesus’ story is filled with suffering because I have sinned. I want to manipulate and make the manger lovely because I don’t want to see his pain, the “cross he bore, for me (for you).” Abruptly, I really feel my shame, and I truly feel his hurt, and the mercy feels so much bigger. It’s this real, heavy, sturdy and gorgeous thing, instead of a rickety, tinsel covered, holiday-frosted thing. Because my wrongs are great, but his Love is incalculable. And all of a sudden Christmas is beautiful again. The lights glimmer and the hymns soar. A baby born on an altar! All of this, for my broken and faulty frame. What a divine, gracious and unspeakably lovely thing.