In a few weeks, we will gather with the children around the Crèche and place the various figures as the nativity from St. Luke and St. Matthew is read out. It is a delightful time and a fitting start to the season, serving as a happy reminder, amidst the secular trappings of the holidays, of the true and sacred meaning of Christmas. There is, however, a small glitch in our little ceremony – as we read the narratives, we place each figure as it corresponds to each point in the story; but, when it comes to the animals, these are placed pretty much when we remember to put them in…very awkward. The reason, astonishingly enough, is because in the Biblical accounts, there is no mention of animals being present around the manger.
Now one might think the place of animals in the scene is logical enough. After all, Luke says the Christ Child was lain in a manger (basically a farmers’ feeding trough), implying a stable – hence the presence of the animals. But our crèche scene, according to modern scholars, is not so well grounded! They tell us that in the ancient world, mangers could sometimes be found in houses so that small animals could come into the family home on cold nights. This leaves us to draw the surprising conclusion that Jesus could have been born in a house. Not an impossible notion. If we consider that the inn was full, it could follow that there were friendly town folk who might invite the mother-to-be to their home for a night. If this is the case, critters are not necessary to the story, but a few small ones, maybe a kid or a lamb, could be permitted but no cows, no oxen, and no donkeys.
So, is the Christmas stable a mistake? A by-product of cultural assumptions about where mangers are kept? Not likely. The book of the Prophet Isaiah speaks so often of the coming of the messiah that it is sometimes playfully referred to as a fifth gospel. In its introductory verses, the rejection of the messiah by his own people is emphasized with the words “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib: but Israel does not know, my people do not consider.” The significance of these verses is not lost on the comprehensive and thickly-layered centuries of biblical meditation. The Church tradition discovers in Isaiah connections with Christ that derive deeper and deeper levels of meaning. So we see the inclusion of a stable is central…it draws into the narrative the prophetic background of the Israelites and their complex relationship and history with God. Nothing gets left out, nothing is arbitrary. More is said by connecting a few concordant bible verses than can be expressed in a million other words.
Fear not, we needn’t revise our Christmas carols nor renovate our nativity sets. It seems, according to the Prophet Isaiah, a stable is on point.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Mark Marshell
In the modern Church, there are two or three ways in which we, as individuals, tend to keep Lenten discipline in our private lives. Perhaps the most popular is the small ascetic practice of giving up such things as junk food, television, computers, alcohol, smoking, and other common distractions. This is a time-honoured practice, older than Lent itself, used century after century by multitudes of devout Christians engaged in the act of penance. Similarly, and closely related, is another ancient exercise that consists of taking something up. Here, an adherent will dedicate him or herself to specific prayers, readings, study, acts of charity, volunteering and so on. These two disciplines, giving and taking something up, are often used simultaneously to great penitential effect. A third more general regime, also well known in Church circles, is where one takes into account certain personal short comings and replaces them with improved habits. For example, if you tend to sleep in - work hard to wake up earlier; if you tend to lose your temper - find ways to keep your cool; if you cower from public speaking - become a lector in your church; if you procrastinate - get it done; if you are untidy - pick-up your mess; etc.
Though, within the Judeo/Christian tradition, countless adherents have for millennia lived and thrived as a penitential people, how important, given the rise of secular ideologies, is penitence in general, and Lent in particular, for the modern person? Is it antiquated, judgmental, dark, superstitious? is it too depressing? Is it just an old habit for the remnant of religious folk impertinent to modern needs and sensibilities? How could these practices be necessary in our own day? Many moderns, even in the Church, simply don’t get it, or even like it; perhaps the modern person would prefer to focus on the positive - on happy things - things like random acts of kindness, philanthropy, neighbourliness, friendliness, social change and so on. It is a message that has found its way into schools, the workplace, volunteer organizations, even TV ads - and the contemporary heart is set on it. So how is Lent now pertinent?
Make no mistake - the Christian Church, with its core teachings and a two thousand year influence, has been instrumental in instilling this philanthropic niceness into the culture; charity toward others is simply a “given” in Christian theology and spirituality, and a fortunate ongoing element of Christian roots in the West. But at the same time, it must be observed that Christian charity and love have not been fueled by self-determinate acts of goodness as in the secular model, but by self-reflective acts of penance - the act of self-examination, humility and need for forgiveness. Sure, modern people will give easy recourse to the notion, “Oh I am far from prefect”; but when confronted with an opportunity to work out moral and spiritual weaknesses,
the same people may become quite offended. We simply do not like the idea that we are not perfectly good; yet if we refuse to reckon with this, we suppose our powers to make objective declarations of “goodness” to be self evident and correct, as if we have life and the world all figured out. Such is the seed of self-righteousness, ideological reductionism, and blaming the other, individually and institutionally, for all the trouble in the world. A very serious game. It is unfortunate that the church has not done as good a job instilling a cultural affection for “Lent.”
Partake of Lent and in so doing teach Lent, saying and doing it all humbly in Christ; this is where good begins.
A Blessed Prayerful Lent,