Anticipating Advent: Getting Ready

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.
~Emily Gibson

Anticipating Advent: At the Feed Trough

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2: 6-7

If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and finally, it is about to arrive, after considerable fanfare and fol-der-ol. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beat to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying small and helpless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.

Who needs Christmas cookies, pumpkin pies and the candy canes to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Just kneel at the manger.
~Emily Gibson

Walking in Obedience

Jeremiah 7:23
Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.

We like to subsist on a Hollywood diet of stories of fated destinies.  We like to think our feelings could direct us well.  God’s way indicates a different type of “destiny”:

“Follow me,” he tells us.
“Seek me if you wish to find me.”
“Draw near to me and I will draw near to you.”

We desire a life of wellness.  God’s economy doesn’t promise prosperity, yet he invites us to walk in obedience to whatever unknown end.
In his Son, we see, in the flesh, the promise of God’s unending faithfulness if we approach the manger and the cross with the same devotion.  Walking with Jesus becomes the ultimate wellness that is our destiny.

~Breanna Siebring