Monday, 19 December 2011

Away in a manger

Hello, God. It's Monday. 

Do Mondays come round more than once a week? Because it sometimes feels like it to me. Bryan's taxi to the station was late this morning causing more than a little panic about missed trains; I had to wake the children up (which, as you know, I consider to be against nature - several years of my life have been spent trying to get them to go to sleep so to reverse the process seems incomprehensible to me) and then we had to teeter our way round to school as the pavements were treacherously icy and the girls and I held each other up until we got to the safety of the school. Then I minced my way back again with much clutching at walls and garden fences.  Phew. 

Is it Spring soon? 

I know, I'm not going to spend the next few months complaining about begin cold and unstable (on my feet, I mean) until the first green shoots show their faces. I'm not, really. 

Well, it's the shortest day soon so a small celebration is in order, don't you think? Not that I'm ungrateful for wintry days where it's so cold that my chin gets left behind and I can't stay upright. No, not at all. 

Not much, anyway. 

I've had a good weekend, thank you. Church on Sunday morning was good; our little nativity, under-rehearsed and beset with dodgy microphones and howling PA but lovely and touching and heartwarming as always. The Christmas story, told with a tableau of small children, bible story read by older ones and all of it choreographed manfully by hardworking Sunday school leaders. 

So simple. My two girls were angels and sat looking somewhat bemused on a bench at the back of the tableau but their Mum and Dad were proud of them nonetheless.  Of all the congregation only we know how incongruous a pair of halos are on my daughters! Only joking.

The Christmas story is so familiar, isn't it? I mean familiar to us. I can't count the number of nativities I've seen or been involved in or heard about in church, in schools and in playgroups and nurseries.  The shops are full of costumes - Mary, Joseph (usually interchangeable with the shepherds), Wise men, even stars, cows, donkeys and camels. Many a doll or new baby have played the title role and little girls always want to be Mary and sit looking suitably serene. 

The two smallest,
most bemused angels are my daughters.
So familiar that I send Christmas cards with a nativity scene on (if I can find them in the shops among the snow-scenes and robins and Santas). All the plays and tableaux and advent calendars and so on just wash over me because I'm so used to them, and then one day there's something that stops me in my tracks. This weekend it was the home-made manger on the stage in church with a bundle of hay in it and an elderly Tiny Tears doll. 

I have no idea how accurate a representation of the Holy Manger this one was, but it's roughness and simplicity and unsuitability for a real baby struck me as something new.

When my girls were born I had all the stuff that you need when you're going to have a baby. I had a small wardrobe full of tiny clothes (mostly in yellow and white as we didn't know if we'd need pink or blue), nappies, wipes, baby lotion (what exactly was that for? I don't think I ever knowingly used baby lotion and yet I must have been given a dozen bottles), muslin squares, toys, mobiles, baby type sleeping bags and the softest of soft blankets. And that brings me to the cot. 

Our cot was pale wood, varnished with a clear lacquer that was considered safe and suitable for babies, with a plastic protective bit over the top to stop the remote possibility of splinters where tiny gums might gnaw as teeth emerge. The side lowered in a convenient way so that no discomfort was caused to my back as I bent to pick up the baby. The cot had a sprung mattress with a chemical-free waterproof fabric coating and then a couple of warm, brushed cotton fitted sheets to make it snug and comfy. 

When I was kitting out our nursery cot bumpers were not considered the thing to have for health and safety reasons but I know many people then and now position soft and pretty padding all round the cot so that baby won't bump his head and is even cosier. My baby was swaddled in the softest of baby blankets for a few months and then when a little older she slept in a custom made sleeping bag. I monitored the room temperature carefully and adjusted her tiny, well-fitting sleep suits and vests accordingly. A jungle animals mobile in pastel colours dangled over her cot and when we wound it up it played a soporific little tune (that was never particularly successful in inducing sleep but nonetheless sounded nice). Stuffed toys were arranged all around the perimeter of the cot and the room was tastefully decorated with 'Elizabeth Lucy' and two years later 'Katherine Emily' on the walls, a chest of drawers just for her things and changing mats and accessories all co-ordinated. We had everything.

That was how my child came into the world. 
No crib for a bed

Yours was born in a stable and slept wrapped in a cloth on top of a bundle of uncomfortable straw in an unhygienic feeding trough for animals, in a cold, grubby and draughty stable, surrounded by smelly cows and sheep. 

Wow. 

Now, my daughters are very special to me, and to a few other people too, but they are distinctly human. They may be children of God in one sense, but not the actual, factual sense. Your son was born into circumstances that were beyond normal - he was positively poor. I imagine that even in those Biblical times not many children were born in a stable. When I was small I used to sing, 'no crib for a bed' and think that the word 'crib' meant money in the olden days and Mary and Joseph didn't have any cash for a decent bed. Well, the idea has merit, I think, but it isn't quite what it means. You didn't have any of the home comforts, did you, Lord?

The Son of God came to earth in such a way. I've heard the nativity story over and over and yet the little wooden manger in our church play brought home to me the truth of it. You certainly did lay aside your majesty. The King of Kings, the Lord of all Creation, tiny and vulnerable and human. 'No crying he makes'? - I bet you did cry. You must have been prickled by the hay even if you were OK about the cows peering at you and wondering where their dinner was. I bet Mary had a nightmare trying to settle you sometimes. 

And then there's Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, giving birth in such a cold, uncomfortable, inappropriate place for something so personal, so difficult, so scary, so momentous. It's a Big Thing when a woman has her first baby - how much more when the mother is a virgin, no more than a child herself and the baby the Son Of the Most High?  Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus' birth was any different from any other birth - it was probably painful and messy and risky and undignified, and to do it without any health and safety advice or gas and air or glucose tablets or towels and hot water, or the benefit of a midwife and a bath and a comfy bed, or even your own Mum - this was basic, wasn't it. 

You wanted it that way. I cannot fathom it, other than that you wanted to demonstrate that you were fully, fully human. You came to us without any of the benefits of the world and with no advantage. You related to the lowest, poorest, most unsophisticated. You were really one of us.

Lord, it amazes me. So much does. So much that I take for granted then my eyes open for a moment and I see something and it amazes me. You showed me. You made the earth and everything in it. You understand all that there is to understand. You are there outside time, looking back on history and forward to the end of the story; you are the beginning and the end and you are the Almighty God, and you arrived on earth in such a simple, understated way that many, many might have missed it. 

I don't want to miss it, Lord. I want to see and understand and marvel. God become man. A tiny baby in a stable more than two thousand years ago, born to a young girl and a simple carpenter without fanfare or news flash. 

The world changed on that day; history hinged, and yet most of the population of the world went about their business without any inkling. Without sensing the shift. 

Without understanding that nothing would be the same again.

The angels, however - I bet it was a different story. 

 'Sing, choirs of angels
Sing in exultation
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above
Glory to God in the highest
Oh come, let us adore him
Christ, the Lord'

Amen.  God with us. The story was beginning.


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