“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him.
His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.”
I still don’t understand -not nearly- what is happening with this advent calendar, or what God is doing, or how it is that I am finding myself in a dirty cave, in the presence of God in the flesh, on the night of the nativity.
But I am. It seems like each day opening the calendar door has been a new and breathtaking face to face meeting with the God I’d always hoped would be there, but somehow never was.
For the last 20 days or so, I’d been conversing with Mary and Joseph and they would ask me questions about “where I’m from”. Not wanting to try to explain what I can’t comprehend myself, I simply told them I was from a place very far away, (which is true…in a cosmic sense) and that my country was very different from Nazareth and Bethlehem.
I suppose I had this on my mind when I decided to sit down and open the door on the advent calendar tonight. I had been playing checkers with Morgan earlier that day and there was a checkerboard and checkers in a box on the table near the chair I sit in when I read. I sank down into my chair and drew a breath. It had been a long day…not particularly emotional but long. I sat the box containing the checkerboard and checkers on my lap and then I opened the little leather door on the calendar.
Not much was happening. Mary and Joseph had just eaten something for dinner and she was cleaning their meager dishes and Joseph was holding Jesus while making cooing sounds and smiling involuntarily at his little boy. He reminded me of me, when Morgan was born. Jesus made little or no reaction…an occasional spit bubble and a faint wisp of a smile…but mostly he slept. He had eaten not 15 minutes before my arrival and Joseph began burping him.
I was sitting cross legged on the dirty straw and smiling a very goofy smile. The kind you suddenly become aware of after a few vacant moments. I was smiling because the thought occurred to me that here was a man younger than me, holding God, and trying to get him to burp. I was certain it couldn’t get any more wonderful than this, when Jesus emitted the loudest burp I’d ever heard. Joseph looked at me a smiled broadly. It was perfect…across time and history men will still be men. Here we were, unable to even explain each others presence in this moment and yet hearing his newborn son burp bonded us at some eternal, male-oriented level.
Joseph placed Jesus in the feed trough and he fell fast asleep. He came over to where I was sitting and asked me about the box I was holding. I opened the box and showed him the checkers game I had brought with me. Inside of ten minutes I had taught him the game and we entertained ourselves for about an hour. Mary had finished what she was doing and joined Joseph on the floor of the cave next to me. Joseph was fascinated by the plastic checkers. “What sort of tree were these made from?” he asked me. I smiled to myself. How would I answer that? How could I explain what plastic even was to this man? So I told him it is from a special plant that grows in my part of the world. He seemed reasonably pleased with that answer and we played for a few more minutes.
At some point I noticed Joseph had an odd, quizzical look on his face. He stopped playing and looked toward the opening to the cave. He had his head tilted back as if he had smelled something. No sooner had I recognized this then he sniffed dramatically and said “Do you smell that?” “Smell what?” I asked him “Pig! I smell pigs,” he said with his nose turned up. “Pig manure to be exact,” he added with disgust. Now, I realized that a pig was anathema to an observant Jew, but I didn’t realize until that moment just how much disdain they held pigs in until I saw Joseph’s revulsion at simply the scent of a pig. He literally looked as if he would curl up and die. I still didn’t smell anything that stood out as a worse odor than the smell of dirty sheep that this cave had held since the first day I arrived here.
It was a full two or three minutes after Joseph smelled him coming, that the stranger showed up at the mouth of the cave. He was a young man…barely more than a teenage kid it seemed. But when he poked his head in the cave, he instantly seemed to age before my eyes. There was a no light in his eyes, no youthful exuberance. There was only shame and embarrassment and a hesitancy to enter…or even to speak.
Joseph was cautious at first, he was about to turn this young man away because the odor betrayed the fact that he had been in contact with pigs and Joseph was an observant Jew. Having him enter the cave would defile the only shelter they had, and with nowhere else to go, Joseph didn’t want to risk it. Until this moment I had not interfered in the interaction of any visitor, but something about this kid seemed very familiar and I just knew he was supposed to be here.
Joseph was about to stand, and I got the sense he was going to turn the kid away. I put my hand on Joseph’s arm and whispered, “Joseph…you might have to trust me on this one. I think this young man belongs here. Let him come in.” Joseph looked at me startled, but suddenly, as if something tugged at his soul, he relented. “If I have to go through this cave and clean it because of this, you are helping me,” he whispered. He had a half smile on his face and I realized he had the same feeling about this young man…he needed to be here.
Mary bid the young man enter the cave. Now, I grew up in a city, but I’ve been to farms and I’ve been around farm animals. I have never -not in my life- smelled anything that rivaled the stench of pig manure that emanated from his ragged clothing. The only thing that was close was the rancid, nauseous aroma of a chicken coop. I’d thought a chicken coop was the single worst thing I’d ever come across until I got a whiff of this kids clothes.
He was sheepish and humble…a broken man at all of maybe 22 or 23 years old. He was stooped over, and not because of the low height of the ceiling. It was because he carried a burden of guilt and shame and brokenness that weighed him down and slumped his shoulders. He would rarely make eye contact with the three of us and when he did, his eyes quickly darted left and right and never held our eyes for more than a few seconds. This was a kid who had truly seen way too much in a brief period of time…and regretted almost all of it.
He didn’t say much. Joseph asked his name and he spit it out in a shamed whisper, like he really didn’t want us to know who he was. He was a filthy mess. He had mud…and God knows what else…caked to his worn-out shoes and up his legs. He wasn’t dressed nearly warm enough for the winter night and he hadn’t had a bath in a long time. His hands were dirty, his face was dirty, his hair was wild and unkempt. His lips were chapped and peeling and his stomach growled so loudly I thought maybe a small mountain lion was outside the cave.
He tried to be polite but it was apparent he would rather not interact with us…or with anyone else. He was perhaps the most shame-filled man I’d ever seen. And the most broken. He stood silently for several awkward moments after Joseph asked him a few questions. He answered dutifully and I suppose it was Aramaic he spoke when Joseph asked him his name because I didn’t recognize it at all. His eyes were puffy and there was a wide, white ring around each eye amid the dirt on his face. This man had been crying a long time.
After a few moments, it was Mary who offered him an audience with the baby. “I suppose you’ve come to see our son.,” she spoke softly. Mary responded to the kid as only a mom would do. I watched her observe him carefully. She was no doubt noticing the brokenness and hurt in this boy. Where Joseph and I saw him as a young man who had apparently taken some wrong paths, Mary saw him as a child. There was tenderness in the few words she offered him.
The young man stiffened as Mary spoke. “Yes ma’am. I don’t know why. I saw a star a week ago and I left the pigs…” He stumbled at the words that fell out of his mouth and tried to put them back in like marbles spilled on the floor. “…I left my job and followed.” The kid was trembling with nerves and, I thought, he was shivering against the cold. It was warm in the cave but he’d been on the road for a week and it was apparent he had no real clothing to protect him from the elements. It was winter, after all. “I walked a long way…I don’t know how far really. I was in another country when the star appeared. I don’t know why, but I just felt I had to be here.”
“Where are you from?” Joseph asked, “Perhaps I know your family.” The young man bristled at this. I don’t know if Joseph saw it but I did. That, was the one question the kid did not want to answer. “Oh no sir…” The young man sputtered, “…I doubt you know them. I mean, maybe…but I don’t.” Again, for the second time, I interfered. Joseph was standing next to me and I leaned over and whispered “Let it go, he is embarrassed.”
Joseph never turned his head toward me but I saw his jaw flex and he nodded slowly so only I could see it. He was in agreement and he spoke again. “You’ve come to see our child. Come with me son. I’ll introduce you.” I don’t know if Joseph heard from God internally or if he was simply picking up on the same sense I had, but he instantly became tender and gentle toward this young man. As if he suddenly sensed the immense hurt and burden of shame this kid was carrying.
Joseph put his arm around the pig manure and sweat-infused, ragged cloak the kid was wearing. I thought he would collapse into Joseph’s arms right there. I think it was a combination of the complete absence of one more moment’s strength, the incredible shame he was carrying, and the amount of time it had been since anyone, anywhere had touched him in kindness. He had grown very old in a very short time, it seemed. He was a beaten and broken man.
Joseph walked him over to the trough and knelt down next to him. “Do you want to hold him?” Joseph asked tenderly. The young man thought for a minute and answered “Yes sir, but I don’t think I should. To be honest, I’m so tired…so weary. I don’t have the strength to lift him. I think I’ll just touch his hand, if that’s okay.” I saw Joseph clench his jaw again and quickly wipe a tear from his eye. His voice broke a bit and he said “Of course son, do as you wish. I’m going to tend to his mother and leave you here. His name is Jesus. I think you should talk to him. There is something about this baby…”
Joseph didn’t go any further with this thought. The young man was slumped down almost in a heap. He had reached in to the trough and touched Jesus’ tiny hand and he was silently sobbing. He was so thin and so gaunt and his clothing was so ill fitting on his feeble body that he looked like a pile of filthy rags on the floor. He wept in silence for a long time.
He spoke in a faint, tired whisper…like it was all the energy he had to force a word out. “I remember when I was not much older than you are. I remember being a baby, being a little boy.” The young man paused a long time. I saw him shivering and trembling and I wondered if it was the chill of the cave of if it was something else…maybe the weakness that his broken body labored under. Maybe the memories and the shame he carried into this place. Maybe something else altogether.
“Jesus…” he continued, “I am so ashamed. I have done so many terrible things. I have…” His voice trailed off. He put his hand over his mouth and a pained wail rose from the heap of clothing and dirty skin. He looked like he was going to throw up. He lay in a tangle of rags and pig manure and cried out years of hurt. He spoke some more, telling his story to Jesus between sobs. Apparently, he had wandered. He had left his family home and made his way to a foreign country and that’s where his plan fell apart.
He had gone to seek his fortune and to make a name for himself. His dad was a prominent man back home and the boy felt the need to escape the large shadow he cast over his sons. The kid had gone away to become a man. Somewhere along the way the plan backfired. The weeping young man spoke of losing all his money. He spent furiously in the first few months on the road. His business plan failed and he lost everything. It took a while, his father had given him much to get his start.
Maybe the thing that hurt him most was the life he’d led in that distant land. There were women, not ladies but women. There were friends who he’d not known very long but who laughed at his jokes and fed his desires until the money ran out. They catered to his every whim and supplied him with devices he’d never known under his father’s roof. But when he’d spent all he had, and after a few of his new “friends” had picked his pocket, he was abandoned and alone.
The economy in that country collapsed about two years ago and he was broke and hungry. He eventually found work on a pig farm, feeding pigs. The owner of the farm was a cold, cruel man who instantly sensed the kid’s plight. “You can sleep with the pigs and you can eat from their trough…after they have finished!” the man bellowed… “I catch you eating anything before they’ve had their fill and you’re out in the cold!” The kid understood and did as the man said.
There is a reason people use the term “eat like a pig” when referring to someone who overindulges. Pigs seldom leave scraps. The kid hadn’t had anything more than a few scant morsels in months. His bones showed. His stomach growled constantly. His hair was brittle and thinning like anyone going through starvation. He trembled constantly.
He lay on the cave of the floor and sobbed. In between fits of broken weeping, he would recount his debauchery to the baby in the cradle who smiled peacefully at the crushed adult next to him. I sat in the dark corner and watched. I’ve been here. I’ve been through this. I wept bitterly watching this young man at his final breaking point. I know that desperate shame of realizing that all you dreamed of and hoped for is gone and all you really did was waste years of your life. I know the way it feels when memories flash in your mind…memories of things you’ve done that you wish you could forget…that you wish you’d never even thought of, much less done.
I don’t know how much time passed, maybe two hours or more. But at some point the weeping turned more impassioned and more desperate. Then the young man spoke between sobs in a plaintive, painful wail; “I want to go home. I want to go home! I want to see my dad! Please…I just want to go home!” His sobs were deeper and more like death-throes. “I can never be his son again. I know that. But my dad has never turned away a stranger and he takes great care of his workers. Maybe I could go work for him. At least I’d eat, and have a bed.” His tears burst forth anew and again he begged; “I want to go home”
There was silence for a few moments. I was sobbing at the pitiful sight before me. I wanted to rush to him and comfort him and stop the brokenness but I was unable to move. I could only watch and weep with him. I was staring at the young man and I again noticed Jesus. He was smiling faintly. Almost imperceptibly. The young man still had his hand inside the manger all this time.
Presently I saw Jesus’ tiny fingers curl around the young man’s thumb. I don’t know if the broken, weeping man even felt it, but I saw it. In that same instant there was a great bustling sound outside the cave. I heard horses and several voices in the night and I was startled. “He is here. This is the place!” there was a great “thud!’ (I would find out later that the rider had jumped off his horse in such a hurry he actually fell from the saddle).
A man came bursting into the cave without hesitation or asking permission. “He is here?” the man said loudly. There was a desperate plaintiveness to his voice; like this was the last chance he’d had to find something…or someone he desperately wanted to find. He ran, as best he could, given the low height of the cave, straight to Mary and Joseph. “He is here? My son. He is here?” Joseph began to speak “Sir, I don’t know…” when suddenly the ragged man by the manger spoke up. His voice was different, like that of a boy, there was innocence in his tone. “Poppa!” it was all he could muster.
The man was in the corner before I blinked. He scooped up the heap of rags that contained his son and began to sob. “My son…my son! Oh my son! Oh…my son!” He repeated only these words for a long, long time. He was incapable of anything else. He held the young man closely to his chest and they both wept with abandon. His father’s tears spilled down on the broken young man and over time washed away the dirt from his face.
After a long time -maybe an hour- of weeping and sobbing, the boy lifted his weary head and began his apology… “Father…” he uttered, “I am so sorry…” The man pulled his son so closely into the folds of his robes that the young man couldn’t finish the sentence. The father wept and kissed his son’s head furiously, over and over, ignoring the dirt and the sores and the thinning hair and the smell. He kissed him and held him in arms that had ached for this moment for years now.
“I thought you were lost forever,” the old man interrupted. “Oh God how I have searched for you!” The man pulled a beautiful robe from the saddle bag he had carried into the cave.
“Here, you are freezing, this is yours. Put it on.” The young man was wide eyed… “But I…” “Here…” the old man continued, “This is yours as well. I assume it still fits. Or it will again once we get some food in your belly!” With that the old man placed a gorgeous signet ring on his sons’ finger. It was large and bore the family crest. “We are going home now son…we are going home.”
I could not see them very well…my own tears were far too present. But I saw the image of the old man as he picked up the baby from the manger and held him closely. I saw his shoulders shaking and heard his voice breaking as he said; “Thank you. My son was lost, you found him for me. He found his way here. To you, and then back to me. Thank you.”
Then the man and his son turned and headed out into the night and on to their home. In the corner was a pile of rags that had once served as clothing for a broken prodigal. No longer needed…because he discovered he was still a son.
…as is this marvelous baby.
“For the Son of God has come to seek, and to save, those who are lost...” -Jesus