The symbol for Christmas ought to be a barn. And I don’t mean the neatly ordered nativity scenes we place as decorations on our mantles or coffee tables; or the finely stylized crèches arranged on church lawns; or the “live nativity scenes” nicely choreographed by congregations and civic groups. Those are nice, but they don’t capture the reality. They only point to it from a distance.
Luke’s gospel tells us that the Christ child was laid in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough. I remember the feeding troughs in my grandfather’s barn in eastern North Carolina. The thick, worn, course, wood slats formed a box of sorts into which silage would be poured for the cattle. Beneath the trough lay straw, dirt, manure, urine soaked earth, and who knows what else, permeating the air with a pungent aroma. Add to that the smell of leather from harnesses, oil and gas for the tractor, and a chemical odor from the bags of fertilizer and pesticide. You’d hear the door creak, chains squeak, the old pack horse, “Red Eye,” would snort, and more often than not the flutter of bat wings high up in the rafters, hidden in shadow. If you went into the barn on an afternoon, sunlight would slice through the spaces between the slats of the barn walls and form parallel beams through clouds of dust motes. Even on a hot summer day, it felt cooler and moist in that space.
A barn performs an essential function on a farm. It’s a shelter, a work space, storage for broken pieces that need repairs, a pantry for feed, a garage, and a latrine for the farm animals. And while colts and calves are often born in a barn, it wouldn’t be the place you’d pick to send a pregnant woman to deliver her infant. But according to Luke’s story, this was precisely the place God picked for the Christ to take on flesh. What. Was. God. Thinking?!
Maybe it’s this. Most people’s lives more resemble the slightly ordered, smelly chaos of a barn than they do the glittering, clean, perfumed order of a Southern Living party room. In my own life, a divorce ruptured my efforts to plan my future and plot my course (chaos). When the opportunity opened to move to Birmingham and work at UAB, I took that path (order). What I had hoped and imagined would be the case at UAB, however, proved not to be possible, so I had to open to a new course again (chaos). Then, despite the fact that I felt like a used-up relic of a man, I met, fell in love with, and married Vicki (beautiful order). Then along came prostate cancer (chaos) and recovery (order) then throat and neck cancer (chaos) and on-going recovery (restored order). Tucked into the time of the recovery from the second cancer came the death of Vicki’s mother, which was both chaos and order all wrapped up into one rich, fecund, painful sacredness.
James Finley, a great mystical giant on the faculty of The Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation, lost his wife recently. He wrote about his own “barn” and said that God does not shield us from the vicissitudes of life but is present with us through everything. Indeed, throughout all that’s happened in my barn yard life over the last eight years, I’ve known an enduring, Rich Presence which reminds me today of Luke’s Christmas point: God comes to us in the barns of our lives. In the barn of my own life, realignment has occurred. Restoration has happened. Revisioning has opened. A new direction has emerged. All that muck happened, but God never went away.
This year, that’s what I’m remembering: the Christ-child was born in a barn.