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 mantels 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. 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. I found myself having to reinvent, reimagine, and realign myself, find healing for an injured soul, and nurture for wounds and loneliness I never anticipated. In a way, I found myself standing in the muck of my life, broken pieces here, but some new parts over there. Manure in the straw, for sure, but fertilizer on the shelf, as well. And surprisingly, in the middle of all that, I encountered a rich Presence who reminded me of Luke’s Christmas point: God comes to us in the barns of our lives.
So, this year I’m reminding myself of this. The Christ-child was born out in a barn. A few of the local farmers and some itinerant academics noted the event, but the busy people in the hotels, in the glittering ball rooms and corporate board rooms, in the halls of government and in the conference rooms of the religious institutions had no inkling that God wriggled in the hands of a young girl who had become pregnant out of wedlock.
It could very well be that the gift of this season is more likely to be found in the “barns” of our lives than in the bright party rooms.