by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM December 6, 2020
Even after all these years, I’m still enchanted by Nativity scenes. When I was a child, my family had one, probably a standard set from a religious articles store. I cherished the ritual of setting it up and then playing with the figures for days afterwards. I remember the elaborate setting of the almost life-sized Nativity in our parish church, how the Infant was reverently carried up the center aisle to find his place in the manger at Midnight Mass. I gazed at those silent figures both at home, in church, and in outside scenes in our neighborhood many times, wondering what they were thinking. There was something comforting and reassuring in gazing at faces that looked as if they could have been my relatives.
Only many years later did I realize that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph most probably didn’t have my German/Scots Irish features. That the Holy Family might not quite have fit in in my suburban neighborhood. That God is not limited to a certain appearance, language, or skin tone. That the Holy One is so much bigger than my childhood imagination–and my limited adult imagination. That God wears many faces in our world and that our call is to recognize and welcome every one of them.
And that Christmas shows that the ways of God are often the opposite of what we might predict, that they seem inside out according to the measuring stick our culture uses as a standard of importance. In writing of the Nativity scene in “Inside Out?”, Peter Trow notes that the shepherds come from outside the city, spending their nights vulnerable with their flocks. Mary and Joseph come, Galilean outsiders with no reservations, and they’re refused room–because they’re poor? because they speak with strange accents? Jesus comes, born an outsider, living with outsiders, teaching and healing outsiders, even dying as an outsider outside the city.
And then I come, perhaps carrying my own experiences of being an outsider, of not always finding room in the heart of another or of struggling to hide my limitations for fear I might be less welcomed and accepted. And then we come, born into a world that is beautiful, yes, but also a world wounded, a world fragmented by division and longing for wholeness.
The Nativity scene will be set up for several more weeks. Long before it’s packed away for the next Christmas, Howard Thurman calls us to do the deep inner soul work of this season:
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.”
May we embody this work of Christmas. May we prepare a place of welcome, a home for Emmanuel, God-with-us, the one who brings outsiders in and names them as welcome guests. And may this holy work begin right here, right now, in our place and time. Advent blessings!
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a Nativity scene set up, gaze at it.
Reflect on the outsider status of the Nativity characters
and on what is lost, broken, imprisoned or in need of music in our hearts and in our world today.
Ask the Holy One to grow your spaciousness of heart.
Featured image: Jon Tyson, Unsplash
Thank you for your prayer for all who were part of the virtual day-long Advent retreat I led through St. Cyril Spiritual Center, Danville, on December 5. Special thanks to Sisters Jean Marie Holup, Michael Ann Orlik, and Susan Pontz for giving graciously of their time and gifts to bring the day together.
Now may I ask you to hold in prayer all who will be part of 2 upcoming events:
December 9, Virtual Advent Evening for the Cornerstone Women’s Group, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Ridgewood, NJ
December 11-13, Directed Retreat Weekend at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA (in person). I’ll be one of the guest directors for this retreat. Thank you.
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