“It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life.”
It is a cold, rainy, late fall day in Philadelphia. It is typical for early December; damp and gray. I still haven’t gotten into the spirit of the season and it is worrying me, but Christmas rushes toward us regardless.
Another day dawns and another opportunity to see what further mysteries the little advent calendar holds.
I open the little leather door. For the first time in eight days, I don't like the image I see. It is an older man, I don't know him, yet he seems familiar. I decide to stand to the side and observe. He arrives at the cave with trepidation. My heart tells me he has made this journey many times in the past and it has always left him discomfited. This place ruins his theology every time he comes here. Yet he comes back each year because he so desperately wants what this baby offers. He just can't get used to the surroundings and the poverty and the dirt.
The overflowing love of an infant Savior makes him uneasy. He has never been comfortable merely accepting this child as he is. This man has always thought God was too easy on us all and that we need to strain more to accept this gift. (The true nature of a gift being lost on his tired soul long ago.)
So again he comes, trying to find a way to reconcile this place and this child with his legalistic theology. He huffs and puffs around the entrance to the cave until finally he bows and scurries in, like a chipmunk running for the hollow of a fallen oak.
He crawls in on hands and knees, making a mental note of how well dressed he is compared to Mary and Joseph and the other visitors. Then he sees how filthy everything is, and that much of that filth is getting his brand new charcoal suit dirty. He is flustered now because he didn't plan on getting dirty...and this a new suit.
He looks around, grasps Josephs hand heartily, and nods toward Mary as if she is merely a domestic servant. Mary smiles gently and thinks to herself how every time he comes here he behaves the same way towards her. I think to myself how the man treats Mary as if she were a Catholic. Even at his age, and wisdom, he doesn’t grasp that she is not.
The man glances around at the unbelievably dismal surroundings and he gives a shudder. "This is wrong," he thinks to himself. "This scene is wrong somehow. This poverty, this humbleness. He is a King for God's sake!"
He glances at his watch, "Good I am early...the wise men haven't even arrived yet” he thinks this every year, and prides himself on getting here ahead of the much ballyhooed Orient Kings. This man is approaching 80 years old and still doesn't realize that they won't be coming tonight. Joseph tried explaining that to him once when he asked, but the old man argued with him so vehemently that he gave up trying. Joseph and Mary tolerate this man for one reason only, and I am about to find out why.
The old man looks at the four figures around the manger in annoyance. They have been there since he arrived and he is late. He has a candlelight service to attend and now he is going to have to change suits before he can go. Besides, these men are shepherds and they are really smelly. Three of them are standing, albeit hunched over and one man is on his knees rocking slowly back and forth. The three are speaking to him, trying to get him to finish up and get going.
“L'enchante...L'enchante, we must be leaving!” But the fourth shepherd is lost in adoration and the only response they get is his melodic, whispered worship tune..."Jesu...Jesu..." His tears flow freely and his smile is as nothing anyone has ever seen. The old man clears his throat loudly and taps on his watch when one of the shepherds looks back. They have no idea what the gesture means, having never seen a watch, but they assume he is in a hurry. The shepherd blushes and finally the fourth man rises to his hunched over position with his three compatriots. They walk past the old man apologetically and he offers a bleak, pained smile.
Now he is alone with the child. He crouches down so as not to kneel, not wanting to further soil his new charcoal suit. He arrives at the manger and for a moment, he seems to soften. A few tears come to his eyes but he resists them. He looks at the tiny figure stirring in the crib and his heart aches to hold him. His hand reaches for a tiny finger but withdraws instantly. "No!" he thinks..."This is the Savior. He cannot be touched!"
His hands tremble and his heart is on fire in his chest. Being this close to that which he adores and still not reaching out to him and holding him, his god-nature cries out: "Pick Him up!" but his legalistic flesh refuses. "Never!" he says to himself, "This is sacred and holy. I cannot touch him nor can He touch me. I would die."
The conflict is visible and the baby begins to cry, perhaps because of the turmoil in the man’s heart and on his face. The baby is reaching a tiny hand toward this man and the man’s heart is wrenched. Mary can stand no more of this and she rushes to her son. She turns a fiery glance at the old man and spits out; "Every time you come here, my son longs for you to pick him up and hold him. And you always refuse. Why? Why do you not understand that a baby must be held to give its love and to receive yours? Why do you not understand this?”
Mary blushes as she realizes she is raising her voice at this man. But her mother’s heart is wounded because of this man's rejection of her son's loving overtures, yet she shows compassion to him. "Sir" she whispers as her tiny hand touches his, "I can see that you have love for him...but he is a baby and he cannot take that love you bring unless you touch him. And he cannot love you in return unless you let him touch you."
The old man trembles and almost breaks. Everything in his old soul longs to hold this child. He knows he has the very son of God -his own savior- right here and he could touch Him, but he refuses. He has all that he has ever longed for at his disposal, but his pride, and the depth of his legalism prevent him and he stumbles out of the cave yet again. He remains untouched and unchanged, refusing the humbling love of being accepted as he already is, not as he thinks he needs to be.
“Jesus loves us just as we are...not as we ought to be. Because we will never be as we ought to be.” --Brennan Manning