Mystically at the Crib bethlehem

Painted by the author

Tonight, God will again, for us, be born. We remember it, and mystically, in the ancient Jewish understanding of “remembrance.” It is a re-happening in our hearts and minds. As Fulton Sheen said about the crucifixion, through its re-presentation, we are able, mystically, to be invited there, to the cave outside Bethlehem.

What do we see there? What we see, or don’t see, reveals us, just as the sight of the scapegoat reveals us: do we see the poetry of truth, the true myth, or are we too ensconced in the poetry of the world, the narrative of the inner circles, the drama written by the powerful?

There was a great cartoon posted on Facebook recently: It was a couple, the woman pregnant, dressed in the clothes of today’s poor: hoodies and shabby jeans. The man was on the payphone, and the woman was seated on one of those kiddie rides you see sometimes outside grocery stores—a donkey that rocks back and forth when you put quarters in it.

It is an exercise in seeing: what would you see if transported, as you are mystically, to the cave outside Bethlehem? An insignificant, poor couple who were not important enough to have a place to stay; a tiny baby that in all probability would either die before adulthood or become another insignificant, poor person struggling to survive. A scrap of human flesh hidden in the arms of a woman, another kind of insignificant in that culture and time.

Would you be a wise man? “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” Wisdom is the ability to see beyond, to recognize truth, to know enough of God to know that He is capable of becoming a baby, to follow His star no matter where it leads, and beyond human expectations of palaces, to follow that light to Weakness Incarnate.

Would you bring him gold nonetheless, though it may appear to be throwing it down a charity hole?

Would you know enough to bring him myrrh; would you know that the sweetness of the nativity scene was also a vision of a more profound form of suffering and emptying than anything you could imagine on your own? Would you, as Caryll Houselander said, see the wood of the cross embedded in the wood of the cradle? Would you see that He was already on the road of suffering, taking the form of a poor flesh-scrap, intentionally risking the suffering of being profoundly misunderstood?

Would you know enough to bring him frankincense, the precious granules that were only burned before a god? Would you know that the telos of frankincense was now finally realized as the smoke gently rose before the poor, the laid aside, the refuse?

Would you be a shepherd? Like the poor child in your poverty, unsurprised by the animal stench and the rawness of the scene, but drawn in because in your familiarity with life outside the city, you could see what was different here? Could you look past the suffering and see unusual beauty in the face of the Mother, in the aura of angels surrounding the Child?

Would you be, instead, an innkeeper, with so much else before your eyes, so many pressing concerns, that you only saw the insignificant poor couple who could not pay hiked rates for rooms? Would you be one of those crafty people who, as Jane Austen said, have “a presence of mind [which] never varies, whose tongue never slips”?

Would you be a Herod, a mover and shaker who, though pretending to be pious, are instead in love with power, with influence, with your own abilities, your own intellect—who sees only two categories for the Christ child: either someone to be used, or someone to compete with? Are you daunted, scandalized, fearful of God’s choice to totally empty Himself and to suffer? Are you doubtful?

Let the Christ child reveal you to yourself. Perhaps you will find all these characters inside. The suffering of the child, of the mother, of the foster father is meant to assuage justice, to test you, to educate you, and to save you. He cannot save you if you do not know yourself, know that you need to be saved from selfishness, fear—and above all, as Fr. Zossima in The Brothers Karamozov says, from “the lie to yourself.” He cannot love you if you do not know you need His love.

The scapegoat, for the first time in history, will, in the power of love, turn the scapegoating into a feast of love, and healing. He will become the Feast.

The baby in the cave is a paradox that reveals you and demands your potential for dignity, sacrificial love, demands in love that you become what you were made to be—and does this with the sweet, absolutely helpless cry of a newborn child. His very helplessness, like the poor of the world, the helpless, the humble, calls you out. What will you see when tonight, you stand outside the cave among the shepherds and wise men?

The painting at the top of this essay was created by the author. The featured image is “The Nativity” (1310), by Giotto di Bondone, and is in the public domain, courtesy here of Wikimedia Commons.

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