We decorated for Christmas early this year, but I still haven't tired of the bits of festivity tucked around the house. In fact, I'm sitting on the couch at the moment, watching my Nativity set as if I expect the shepherd to gasp in wonder. It's a riveting, peaceful scene... the stable and inhabitants surrounded by evergreen branches and flanked by a candle. The tallest wise man's head no longer lands in the greens at his feet without warning, but the donkey is facing the wrong way and the shepherd is just slightly leaning. I must not have visited the stable since the last time little visitors did.
One of my earliest Christmas memories is opening little cardboard windows in an Advent calender Mom put up every year. The scene on the calendar depicted the Nativity. It was beautiful and mystical to my young eyes, all the animals gazing with wide, soft eyes at the clean, peaceful baby sleeping in glowing hay. And the barn was as clean as a Marriott. I especially remember the face of the cow - eloquent, docile, and radiant with benevolence. Idealistic, sentimental me loved that cozy scene.
After a few years, that glowy feeling was threatened by a manger in someone's yard. A cross hovered over it, casting a long shadow. I hated it. I just wanted to focus on the holly-berry feeling of Jesus as an adorable baby, surrounded by shepherds, angels, Joseph, and Mary... and that benevolent cow. When Good Friday came, I'd deal with Jesus' suffering. At the moment, I wanted to be innocent.
But not all cows are benevolent. Some, like the one who stepped and pivoted on my foot, are oblivious to the knowledge of their sheer mass and the cracking of bones in a small thing under their hoof... Oblivious, in fact, to anything outside their chewing mouths. Some are downright MALEVOLENT, like the one who, without any provocation, threw her weight on me, crushing me between her settling bulk and the stanchion bar until I could barely gasp for air. Don't get me wrong. I love cows and have many memories of leaning my head against sleek, warm sides on cold mornings. Most of my cows had large, deep, liquid eyes and loved to be scratched around their horns. But not all cows are like that. If cows did indeed witness Jesus' birth, some might have kept their heads buried in their mangers. Some might have had to be shooed away to prevent their hurting the little King. And no barn (no matter how attentive the farmer) is ever clean. Half an hour after a stall is mucked out, it's duly re-baptized. True story. Babies are not born plump and clean, either.
Despite how much we romanticize the story of His coming, Jesus' birth was messy - just like His death. Dirt, pain, blood, and tears characterized both. Contrary to how I felt at age five, the kinship of the two happenings does not tarnish either. He came to suffer... like and for us. That is WHY His birth is so beautiful.
Entering into pain is HOW He brings justice to suffering people. Doesn't He call us to do the same?
One of my favorite examples of justice being done for the oppressed occurred during Hitler's ethnic cleansing endeavor. I couldn't find dates and places for this story, so I'll just try to relate it as I heard it recorded by an eye-witness.
A modest town populated by people of modest means was disrupted by the entry and occupation of Nazi soldiers. Gradually, the townspeople grew to accept their presence and went about their days as normally as possible.
A priest also lived in this town, a personage of fearsome proportions to the then-small narrator. He towered above most men. His frame was large, but he was thin. Dark robes hung from his wide shoulders, cavernous against his thin sides. His eyes, set deep above marked cheekbones, burned with such intensity that they seemed to penetrate one's very thoughts.
The soldiers' activities grew increasingly bizarre until, one day, the small boy stood on the sidewalk and watched as soldiers, heavily armed, marched down the street, herding Jewish people into a small pen. An enclosed truck stood waiting nearby. The pen became more and more crowded with quietly terrified families. Passers-by averted their eyes and scuttled fearfully past.
News must have reached the large ears of the priest. Down the sidewalk he marched with long, angry steps. Without words and without fear, the priest confronted the soldiers guarding the entrance of the pen. Eyes blazing, he pushed the guards and their guns aside and stepped into the enclosure. Inside, he turned and fixed those eyes momentarily on the eyes of each guard.
"If you take them, you must take me. They are my Brothers and Sisters."
Stunned, the guards looked from the priest to the faces of the people with whom he stood to the eyes of the people who had finally stopped walking and really looked.
Maybe for the first time, those soldiers really looked, too. And they were embarrassed at what they saw. Something about the priest's willingness to claim the suffering of others as his own so moved them that they stepped back. They broke orders, forfeiting their own lives.
"Go," they commanded the captives. "Quickly! Hide. And then get out of town."
Justice was executed in the earth.
And thorns do not ruin a picture.