Have you noticed that many of these nativity sets, manger scenes, are so full, even too full, of figurines of people and animals!
They’re way too overpopulated!
Whether the nativity set is sitting on a shelf, or nice fireplace mantel, or in a store window, or on a front lawn …
… We see a whole group of “Wisemen” or Magi – who according to the Biblical account didn’t arrive until a few days after Jesus’ birth.
… We see a multitude of angels all around the manger scene – who again weren’t all there the moment Jesus was born, only in the hours following.
… We see a whole assembly of cattle, sheep, camels, doves and donkeys:
Who knows how many, if any, actual animals and birds hovered nearby the moment Jesus was born?
… We sometimes even see a drummer boy standing there with his drum, amongst all the other figurines – attested to in the popular carol, but not in scripture.
… In some manger scenes, even Santa, yes Santa, makes an appearance, kneeling in adoration.
… A popular pub in Chicago adds leprechauns, and a miniature pint of Guinness to its nativity set!
A flash mob, crowding around the manger!
Now, sometimes this overpopulation doesn’t bother me too much.
After all, Jesus did come for all people, for the whole world, and so it’s only right that the “whole world” shows up to celebrate at his birth.
That makes sense.
But I’m wondering if we prefer to jam pack that manger scene so full of animals and humans for another reason:
It’s just safer that way. We want it that way.
We put a big enough crowd between us and the baby, and we can’t get too close.
And if we can’t get too close, we can’t actually see with our own eyes the baby Jesus, to know and experience his presence, and encounter him personally for ourselves.
By keeping our distance, we avoid being deeply affected, moved, deep down in our gut, by the baby we see, by the relationship that beckons, by the deep love as well as the potential hurt, that comes from authentic relationship.
And so, to avoid risking all that, we keep our distance, blend in the crowd, feeling safe in numbers.
But is that what God wants?
There’s a wonderful story, a Mexican legend, about the poinsettia plant, which we have here in abundance at St. Matthews, and how it connects with this whole idea of approaching the manger, approaching the Christ child.
It goes like this:
There was once a Mexican girl – Pepita was her name – from a poor family who had no present to give to the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve Services.
It was a tradition in her church and culture: you bring a gift to the Christmas Eve service, to lay at the foot of the manger in the church.
Pepita was so sad and discouraged, she didn’t even want to go.
But she went anyway, sad that she had no impressive gift to give to baby Jesus.
As she walked along the path, out of a sense of desperation, she bent over and picked a small handful of weeds growing on the side of the pathway.
Feeling embarrassed with her “humble gift”, she nevertheless walked up before the service and laid this bouquet of weeds down at the foot of the manger.
And suddenly, the weeds magically burst into bright red flowers.
From that night on, these bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.
Or, as we’ve come to know them: the poinsettia flowers.
God doesn’t demand from us a perfect gift, or a perfect world, a perfect person, or a perfect circumstance.
God only yearns for relationship with us, that we approach the manger, and behold love.
And in that encounter, God wants to bring healing and peace and truth to our broken world.
At the end of the day, Christmas isn’t about us. It’s about God. God’s power to act.
It’s about how, right into the middle of the darkness of sadness and grief in our lives and world, God breaks through.
It’s about, regardless of where we might be standing in proximity to the manger, no matter our shortcomings or feelings of inadequacy, despite the destruction or violence around the world, despite ruthless and callous tyrants and despots in Syria, Africa or elsewhere, God nevertheless breaks through.
God breaks through, and plants divine being and holy hope right smack dab into the middle of that.
And we, like those shepherds, like those 3 Kings, can come and confidently approach this God made flesh.
We can come and approach the manger as we are, in whatever circumstances we’re in.
And in that encounter with the living God, we are changed.
We begin that journey of transformation, offering light and love and hope to others.
Our small and humble gift – of time, talent or treasures out of love for God and the world God made – God receives and welcomes, and transforms, into something extra-ordinarily beautiful, and eternally good.
It was the humble and simple gift of hospitality by some Canadians some twenty-four years ago, that brought light, life and new hope to Hamid, an Afghani refugee.
I recently heard his story on the radio while driving in the car.
Hamid described his life in Afghanistan in the bleakest of terms – oppressive, dangerous, where bombs and raids occurred on a regular but unpredictable basis, with endless piles of rubble, barbed wire and hidden IEDs.
The constant high stress, the continual adrenaline rush, that high alert survival instinct simply to avoid being killed, was no way to live.
It was quickly evident to him and his family, a future could not be had in that war-torn land.
Hamid knew he had to leave.
He said that feeling of coming to Canada could not even be put to words – that amazing sense of feeling finally safe, of having new hope, a fresh start to build a life, was indescribable.
From a world of “grey” to a world of vibrant and bountiful “colour.”
Unbidden, unplanned, God breaks into our world.
And transformed by his love, by holding that infant Christ child in our own arms, we are sent to be that same life-giving force to others, “breaking into” their lives – so to speak – with light, life and new hope.
Blessings to you; blessings of courage to approach the manger with confidence, to get up good and close and personal with the God of the universe, so that we may be transformed by that encounter.