“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”
Before I get the day going, I decide to open the little door on the advent calendar and see what is behind it. Every day has brought another unexpected scene this season. Things that were not behind the little paper doors of the little advent calendars I had growing up. But scenes that are inseparable from Christmas anyway, even if they seem disparate. Peeling back the leather I see...myself.
I have been to this cave as an observer, today it is my turn to kneel at this dirty manger and see my infant king.
I can't get over the roughness of this cave. When I was a boy, the nativity scenes always seemed fairly hospitable and almost welcoming. "I know it's a barn and everything...but this isn't so bad” I would think to myself. Jesus wore a smile and there was a crowd of well-dressed and important looking people around him. Mary looked healthy and much older than she probably was in reality, and she looked as if, rather than just giving birth to a baby in a barn, she was ready to run to the all night grocery and bring back hors d’oeuvres.
The truth is, this place depresses me. It's cramped and the ceiling is low. I am 6' 4" and I have to practically crawl in here. Mary and Joseph aren't nearly my size so they can walk hunched over, but even then it is uncomfortable. They won't be leaving for days, because neither she nor Jesus should be moving around right away. So they will have to endure this mess for a while.
It is deep and roomy enough for a few adults but it is so low. I am claustrophobic to begin with so maybe that's just my personal take on the matter.
Mary and Joseph are sleeping and I crawl over to the manger in the alcove. He is there, looking up at me with loving eyes. I want to pick him up and yet I am afraid. But having observed the previous visitors here, I know He wants me to hold Him. He wants this because that is how babies transmit their love to us.
When we touch them, we let them touch us and Jesus wants to touch my soul tonight. So I pick him up. He is wrapped in the ragged pieces of cloth and I feel embarrassed for him and for Mary and Joseph. I bring him to my chest...right next to my heart. I search for words. I feel a hand on my shoulder and I look to the right, it is Joseph.
"Talk to Him” he says. "No" I whisper, There is so much I want to say but I am afraid" “Afraid of what, son?" Joseph answers, "He is a baby". I know Joseph is right about this but yet I am paralyzed in awe. I held my own child the night she was born and for the first three hours all I could manage was “I love you” repeated over and again. This is Jesus…the Son of God. What words can I say? “What language should I borrow to thank thee…dearest friend” was how the hymnist once put it.
Jesus is above my meager words, and yet my heart aches to talk to Him. The need to open my soul to this baby Savior is greater than my fear and shame and so finally I draw a deep breath...
"Jesus" I whisper, "I hardly have words for this moment. I feel so unworthy to be here with you. And yet somehow we have so much in common. Holding you like this...right now. I know what fate awaits you. I know the cruel violence you will have to endure to redeem me. I don't like thinking about that with you in my arms. I understand a few things better tonight, now that I've touched You. I grew up under the same shadow of illegitimacy as you will. I have been homeless as you one day will choose to be. I have been separated from my father too. I have so many hurts inside that I need you to touch. It has been a tough few years and I am weary. I miss the innocence of youth and I miss the promise of a life yet to be lived. I wish I could return to my childhood, and have a second chance at some things".
The baby smiles at me and coos softly. I think He understands. I think too, that is why he came as a baby. This infant-Savior doesn't care what my past may have held. He doesn't care about my failures or my shortcomings. Those things mean nothing to Him at all. He is only a few hours old and so that's all the history He knows.
That is the wonder of His coming to us as a touchable, loving infant baby. His love is penetrating when we take him to our hearts and let it do what it does. I hold Him for a long, long time. My sadness and regrets turn to hope and worship and joy. Babies can do that. Babies bring the new start we all desperately seek from time to time in our lives. I am lost in the wonder of holding a child and I am enchanted.
"Jesus" I continue, “love is such a confusing thing sometimes. Help me to love you first and most. Help me to become the man you have in mind for me to become. Help me to bear your name well on this earth. Help me to seek out and find those tragic souls who wander this world desperately trying to find this cave and this manger...and You. You have touched me little one...please use me to touch others in the same way. I remember…I remember that cold night in November of 1990 when I was so lost and so hopeless and so ready to…"
My thoughts grind to a halt as I recall the night I first encountered this child, the desperation of my life, the loss of hope. I recall the way I heard him calling to me when I thought he would have rejected me and hated me instead. I recall the loving touch I felt when I was weeping and pouring out my heart to Him that night.
I am holding Him now as a baby and I am thinking about all that would one day befall this tiny child. The beatings, the torture, the cross…for me. My heart rips open and I want to scream “No!” and to somehow stop the inevitable outcome of Jesus’ life. But I know that I cannot. He came to do that, and all my life I had overlooked the fact that the brutalized figure nailed to the cross was once a beautiful little dark-eyed baby boy that I could hold. I am undone in love and worship and sorrow all at once.
I close my eyes and offer silent prayers. Prayers for people I love and want the best for. Prayers for people who I will one day meet who don't know this baby. Prayers for dear loved ones who carry heavy burdens because they are more afraid of God than I was and they have not been here to see this baby in a long time. Prayers of thanks to God for coming to me in this form...touchable and seeking to give me His love.
I am moved and transfixed. With eyes closed, I am memorizing the way this little baby feels as I hold Him, so that whenever this life gets me bogged down with failure or concern, I can recall this moment in detail, and feel this new beginning again. Holding this baby, I am not a failure, not illegitimate, not a man who struggles with receiving love and giving it away. I am not unforgivable or stained beyond cleaning, or useless.
Here with this baby in my arms, I am a child myself.
And the Father of this little baby is very fond of me indeed. Only a child could calm the turbulence in my heart. Only a baby could soften the blows that life had so frequently struck against my dreams. Only a baby could convince me that there is a Love in this world that is greater than even the worst of my failures. Only this baby in this manger…in my arms.
What language shall I borrow, to thank thee, dearest Friend? -Martin Luther