My pre-Christmas meditations were mostly about the stable. The one that Christ was born into. The one that He lives in, in my heart.
My thoughts were partly fueled by a story that was sent to me before Christmas by Hilary Rojo. (I met Hilary and her husband Mac when they organized a pilgrimage I took to Israel in 2005.) Hilary’s story was about the couple’s experiences as they went to Bethlehem to attend Midnight Mass one unspecified Christmas Eve.
They had gotten tickets months in advance, and they looked forward to the chance to celebrate one of the holiest nights of the year in one of the holiest spots in the world. But—as is so often true— reality wasn’t as Christmas-card-picture-perfect as they hoped it would be.
It’s important to realize, as I had found out when I was there once in 2005, Bethlehem is Palestinian controlled. Our Israeli-driven bus had to park in a garage on one side of the border. Then we had to walk down a street and through a security checkpoint in a building where rifle-armed guards strolled on open iron catwalks over our heads. When we exited the building, we were in Bethlehem. Then we had to get into a Palestinian-driven bus and continue our journey to the Church of the Nativity.
When the Rojos got to Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity that Christmas Eve, the din was hellish. As more and more people poured into the square, the press of bodies was so intense, it sometimes was hard to breathe. The way Hilary told it, the Palestinian soldiers who provided security stood by and laughed among themselves at the tourists as they pushed and shoved each other trying to get to the head of the line. A flying wedge of Germans elbowed by them. Young Palestinian children pushed into the crowd to pick pockets.
The Rojos were dismayed even further when then they saw the soldiers only allowed dignitaries and their entourages to enter the church doors. The Rojos stuck it out, mostly because there was no escape, and no place else to go. Their tour bus was locked in a garage. After a long wait, it seemed their persistence had been rewarded when they got as far as the door of the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, which is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. They thought they had finally made it in, until the guards suddenly announced, “The church is full, go away!” and BANG, the big wooden doors slammed shut.
Just as suddenly they spotted another opening, the famous Door of Humility, which some say was bricked over at the top and one side to keep the Crusaders from riding their horses into the church. In any case, the door keeps you humble because you must bow your head to enter.
The Rojos rushed over to the door, and suddenly Hilary recognized Mahmoud Abass, the former president of the Fatah movement. She looked him in the eye, and then she and Mac got in line and drafted through the door on his figurative coattails.
Abass and his entourage were escorted to a reserved seating area in the adjacent church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, while the Rojos melted into the crowd somewhere behind him in a press of bodies that was as packed as the square outside had been. They couldn’t even see the altar. People began to faint and throw up all around them. Chunks were actually flying through the air. In the heat and unpleasantness, the stench and the fear, Hilary complained to God, “Is this what Christmas is all about in Bethlehem? Is this what I get for coming half way around the world to honor your Son?”
She went on to write that as soon as she had finished her lamentations, “the room became mysteriously quiet for me. I suddenly felt at peace and then felt a warmth encircle me. A thought/voice questioned me in a soft and loving tone, `What do you think it was like 2,000 years ago? Didn’t you want to experience the birth?’”
During my visit with my spiritual director, Carmelite Fr. Donald Kinney, in December, I had been telling him about my struggles. As we attempt to grow closer to God, the areas in which we fall short of His perfection become disgustingly vivid to us in the illumination of His Light. Fr. Kinney said in consolation that Christ is with us even then. After all, “Christ was born in a stable,” I told him Hilary’s story. He nodded, yes that’s it.
“It’s not a pretty sight, Father!” True, but He is with us any way.
When we create our little manger scenes, we leave out the manure and the flies. But these were surely part of that first Christmas night. City folks may not have experienced a stable first hand, so they don’t know. Where you have asses and oxen–and humans–you have excrement.
The spot where Christ was born is covered by marble and a silver star now. You get to it now by going down a narrow stairway under the basilica. Two stone mangers were excavated there in the past few years that were dated scientifically as 2,000 years old, so there really was a stable in that cave.
Speaking about animals and smells, I remember the shock of my first visit—when I was in my forties—to some relatives’ dairy farm in Wisconsin. The reek of cow urine permeated even the farmhouses. And as I gradually came to realize, much of the dairy farmers’ energy is devoted to shoveling out the manure. Beside most barns in the country in winter is a manure pile sometimes as high as the roof, which will be spread on the fields in the upcoming spring as fertilizer.
While we were still sinners, Christ was born for us, lived with us and died for us. And He resides with us still, in the stables of our hearts, even if the best we can give him for a welcome is a bed in a manger full of hay and a modicum of warmth from a mix of animal breath and steaming manure.
It helps to be reminded of this from time to time, He is with us no matter how high and deep the pile is. Dare I hope that a composting is happening and that spring will bring the time when all that composted formerly nasty stuff will be plowed under to prepare the soil for the seed time and the harvest to come?
Revised from an earlier post.