in the Poor and Smelly Manger
by Noel E. Bordador
In my Church tradition, the four weeks before Christmas is called Advent, a time to prepare oneself for the celebration of Christmas. It is a time to reflect on the coming of Christ, an event not only limited to two thousand years ago, but we believe Christ comes now to us and will come again. But the time before Christmas and the holidays can have a way of opening up old wounds. It could be wounds around family stuff - loved ones living far away, or alienation from family, divorce or separation, and even dealing with loss around the death of a loved one. It could be about missing that “special person” in our life. As it is also the time to take stock or inventory of our life as we prepare for a new year, we can get caught up about what we have not accomplished. And I suspect that many people here or around us are also having some difficulty with the holidays. For me, I had to deal with the anniversary of the death of my grandmother who died twenty years ago, but who I still sorely miss. And I usually spend Christmas far from my other “home,” my family who live across the globe. We all want Advent and Christmas to be all nice, fun, and happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. And certainly, the nice Christmas music, glowing lights, and decorations add more to the pressure to “have yourself a merry little Christmas”. But, for many, life around Christmas may not be that easy. Christmas may not be that neat and tidy of a celebration.
When I was in first grade back in the Philippines, my teacher asked her students to help her decorate the manger scene in our classroom. Ms. Dazo assigned to me the task of bringing hay for the manger. I remember that my grandfather and I got up early one morning so we can gather hay from the rice fields that was quite some distance from our house. As we gathered, I noticed that there were some other things mixed in with the straws - dirt, shards of broken clay pots or bottles which my grandfather warned me could cut, hurt, and cause pain. There were creepy insects that annoy and bite, dead weeds, and animal dung that smell so bad. And I thought, we’re going to make a bed for the baby Jesus out of these ugly and smelly things? But I have come to reflect that the ugly and smelly manger that Jesus chose to inhabit has become a symbol of my life, in fact, not just my life, but human life, our life. The dead and lifeless weeds symbolize that part of us that has died, or gone through many deaths, or are dying. The broken shards of clay pots and bottles that can cause pain and that can wound are but our own brokenness, heartbreaks or the pain we carry and tuck in our hearts. The creepy insects or the smelly dung stand for that which turns us off about ourselves, things that we want to deny exist in us, or things that we want to hide even from ourselves.
But, of course, understandably, we want to hide our brokenness, our pain. We don’t want to face the things we have come to hate about ourselves, about our lives, or those things we are ashamed about that prevents us from loving ourselves or allowing others, including God, to love us. The temptation during Advent is to whitewash our brokenness. Advent can be a time of great cover-up. We want to fill our spiritual poverty with whatever to hide our emptiness before God. And there are many ways we can do it, but certainly our culture of consumerism and busyness during this season hardly allows us even to catch our breath. This busy season can crowd out that necessary time for silent solitude where we can have the chance to look at our life and see how much we need God. If our lives become crowded, can we truly see God there? My grandfather said to me when we’re decorating the manger, “Don’t fill it up with too much hay, or else, there won’t be room for the baby Jesus.” What this has meant to me over the years is the realization that the hollowness we find in our lives, the emptiness we sometimes feel can be that empty, messy manger to hold Jesus in our lives.
Advent is the time to acknowledge that grace reveals itself in the messiness of our lives. Dorothy Day, the communist turned Catholic, says, “Life itself is a haphazard, untidy, messy affair.” Commenting on Dorothy Day, John Kirvan, a religious author, said "Life will never cease to be a messy affair and our spiritual journey will never be reduced to a tidying-up operation. [And] God…[doesn’t] wait to enter our life until we have put it all in order.” Christ comes in the mess. Remember the story of Christ’s conception in the Gospel of Matthew? The Gospel story tells us that even God sometimes does not seem to operate in a neat, orderly and uncomplicated way. Sometimes, God seems to complicate things. God asks Mary to carry in her womb the Son of God, but then kind of exposed her to a scandal that could, if you read between the lines, cost her life should Joseph not have been more discreet in his decision to dismiss her “quietly.” Then, as a after thought, God sends the angel to Joseph to kind of fix things, as if saying, “Oops.” But the thing is, the mess is not the final thing about us, but grace is. Grace has the last word.
To prepare ourselves, therefore, for the coming of God, is to reveal to God the poverty of the manger of our hearts and soul, to cry, Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus, and then to expect with joyful hope that the Christ will come in self-abasement, in self-humility, in self-humiliation to make an abode in the poor mangers of our poor souls. So, whether or not we prepare and clean our house for the coming of Christ, Christ will insist on inviting himself to us, and will, in fact, come as our guest. Whether you are prepared for the “party” on Christmas Eve or not, invite the Guest to come in, and make room for him in your hearts.
2003 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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