For the month of Advent I’ve been studying old masters who portrayed the Nativity in hundreds of different ways, all based upon their individual cultural contexts, the style of art at the time, and their own penchant for symbolism within their work. As beautiful as the paintings are to gaze at, I know none of them come even close to the reality of that first Christmas Eve. None of these artists could illustrate the dark dirtiness of a cave-like barn and still expect to attract viewers to a gallery wall 500 years later.
The significance of where this birth takes place is lost in the romanticism of the nativity scenes where cherubic angels fly above, obedient animals stand as witnesses, and the shepherds are clean and washed as they peer into the manger. Many of these paintings make the setting look positively royal with ornate architecture, and the people wearing finery fit for a banquet. We have to remind ourselves there were no halos, no rose petals, no lace swaddling blankets. Instead, there was the ambiance of a place where animals were kept.
Barns reek of manure and urine. They are dusty with cobwebs, and are inhabited with unwelcome critters along with the ones that are meant to be housed there. People who have been traveling by foot or on a donkey for several days are not going to be wearing beautiful robes, their hair beautifully brushed and skin pure and white. Shepherds who spend weeks tending flocks of sheep in the hills don’t bathe regularly, nor get their clothes mended or cleaned. They would have walked in smelling like the animals they cared for.
What a setting to have a baby.
What a place for God to take His first human breath.
So Jesus was born in the midst of a very earthly mess. Yet, in the stable, they found safety, they found shelter, they found privacy, and there was warmth from the bodies of the animals. It became sanctuary for two people who had nowhere else to go and were grateful for even the most primitive accommodations.
And it remains a sanctuary for me.
Every day as I clean stalls, haul manure to the pile, bring in fresh shavings for the bedding, pour clean water and loosen new hay, I think of the fact that God chose a barn of all places, chose animals to be the first witnesses, and chose to announce the birth to the poorest smelliest people around. It makes my barn cleaning work seem somehow relevant.
You never know when a manger somewhere may be needed again for a grander purpose.
I want to be sure it is ready.
I want to be sure I’m ready.