Photo by Alasdair Elmes on Unsplash

Celebrating Advent out of sight, out of mind

Rev. Dr. Corey Fields

December 16, 2019

As a child growing up, when it got to be that time of year, Christmas seemed to be everywhere. Lights on many people’s houses, Christmas music playing in all the stores, large tinsel ornaments on streetlamps. Having also grown up in church, I always associated Christmas with the birth of Christ, so it seemed to me as if everyone was in on announcing this great event.

Indeed, I had images in my head of angelic announcements on a bright starry night, seen by all, formed in part by modern nativity scenes. It wouldn’t be until later in life that I realized that the actual biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus is nestled deep in obscurity. The birth itself, and the scant few people to whom it was known, paints a picture of a world-changing event that was nevertheless so arcane and secluded that it couldn’t be more divergent from the ubiquitous Christmas sights and sounds of today.

Luke tells the story of a birth that happened, to use more modern terminology, out back in the barn. His account is shockingly simple in comparison to the modern images that have developed. He doesn’t even mention a stable. It says only, “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger…” A manger was some kind of feeding and/or parking station for animals (the same Greek word is used in Luke 13:15 to refer to something from which a donkey or ox would be untied). There’s not even an inn or innkeeper (“inn” is a bad translation of the Greek, which actually refers to an extra hospitality room in someone’s house).

In fact, the only people who really seemed to know of anything special going on were the parents of Jesus and John the Baptist, and a group of poor, less-than-upstanding shepherds. The scene with Herod and the Magi in Matthew happens later. We know about the famous angelic announcement, but that actually took place with the shepherds before they had left their fields, not at the scene of the birth. Although all our nativity scenes have those few admiring animals, not even that is mentioned in the Bible (it is merely an inference based on the mention of a manger). The birth itself seems to happen with no fanfare, and Matthew and Luke spend precious little time narrating it. It is only one verse in Matthew (1:25) and one in Luke (2:7).

Out of sight, out of mind. No lights, no special stars, no shining faces, no commissioned choir. By the Bible’s own telling, it was just a poor, peasant family who were in the middle of an inconvenient, out-of-town trip when it was baby time and they had to do everything makeshift. To be sure, they had been told who and what this baby is, and they knew of the miracle taking place. But to the rest of the world, it was just another night for all they knew at the time.

What seems much more important to Matthew and Luke is what it meant, and to whom it was made known. They may not give us much clarity on the details, but what is much clearer is that this coming of God’s son, in a dark, forgotten corner of the world, was good news to those who also find themselves in life’s dark, forgotten corners.

The actual biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus is nestled deep in obscurity. But what is clear is that this coming of God’s son, in a dark, forgotten corner of the world, was good news to those who also find themselves in life’s dark, forgotten corners.

The gospel of Luke has Mary break out into a psalm after receiving the angel’s announcement. Why does her soul rejoice? Because, she said, “he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:48 NIV). For her, this was a reminder that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53 NIV). John the Baptist’s father Zechariah also utters a psalm, in which he says that, through these things, God’s mercy will “shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:79 NIV). It calls to mind Isaiah’s oracle, often read during Advent: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…” (Isa. 9:2 NIV).

One of my favorite nativity-related images comes from a Christmas video loop. At one point the video shows a scene of a simple manger with hay in the foreground against a blurry background of city lights and cars. There is nothing or no one else in the foreground with the manger. It seems to stand alone, far from the notice of those in the busy city behind.

That is our Christmas story. That is where God was fully revealed. While this bare story need not totally negate the Christmas sights and sounds that I still hold dear, it certainly does not leave any room for maintaining the status quo. As Mary’s song suggests, this arrival flipped it all upside down.

What miracle might be happening out of sight and out of mind in your neck of the woods? One of the best and most meaningful ways to observe the season of Advent is to find ways to be in solidarity with those who are ‘out of sight and out of mind.’ Where might the abandoned manger be sitting in your community? What opportunities do you and your family or church have to lay down your own comfort and traditions and be with those still in darkness?

I know of a community of people who spend every Christmas Eve eating, talking, and playing cards with folks who have nowhere else to go that night. They sing their hymns and light their candles, but then they go down to a basement room to roll out the feast and the sleeping bags. They put on the coffee and pull out the presents. It’s stinky. It’s loud. They’re not all snug in their beds with visions of sugarplums, but I’m convinced that kind of thing gets us a little closer to the manger.

Mother Teresa said, “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven, to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”[i] Perhaps that’s really the only way to properly celebrate the season.

The Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. Brian Kolodiejchuk, editor. Image, 2009, p. 230.

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