You see, I was looking for a picture that would illustrate a story about desperate times in my life. Pictures of a baby compromised, hanging on by a thread to the life he had just recently breathed into his tiny lungs. I was looking for a picture that held the angst, anger and compassion that weigh down the heart of a mother wishing she could breathe for her child. I was looking for a picture that told the story of a baby who wasn't as lucky as mine, of a mother with empty arms. I was looking for a picture that would represent not just the thin space of grief, but the wonder of feeling God's arms.
I was looking for something that depicted the pain of a young unwed mother, her insides stretching with the miracle of labor, using her animal instincts to find a place to give birth, even as the world told her she was not wealthy or powerful enough. I wanted a picture that reflected the grief of hundreds of mothers whose babies were slain at the request of a jealous king. I wanted an honest portrayal of the bravery of parents who listen to angels and take an alternate path home.
I feel the pain of that mother, of those grieving mothers in my womb. My breath catches in my throat at an honest look into thin places. Those places are filled with darkness, uncertainty, fear and anguish.
My manger scene doesn't depict a woman scorned, an impoverished birth, or a narrow escape from death. It shows a well nourished bunch of folks standing around a glowingly healthy baby. As I took in the scene, a knot of anger tightened in my gut, and a brief desire to sweep the whole scene from my mantle flickered; its spark holding the power to fuel a raging fire of grief, injustice and fear.
And then I thought about this picture, this little bird. I wonder about its story. Was it abandoned? It isn't a pretty creature. It looks raw, weak and exceedingly vulnerable. For me, the beauty is in the love that surrounds the bird. There is the box, which cradles it, a blanket or napkin to offer warmth, and grass to offer cushion and comfort. I think about the little hands that likely placed the bird in the box. I love the sense of hope depicted here. The box's open top suggests that the bird might gain the strength to hop out, or even to stretch its wings. The very fact that the bird was placed in the box and not left for dead offers a sense of illumination.
So what is my point? Whether we are anxiously watching our child's chest rise and fall, lulled in and out of sleep by the beep of a machine that sustains him, or lamenting the pain of innocent lives taken by jealous kings and misguided gunmen, or taking pity on a creature who looks too weak to survive; it is in these places that we're invited to the manger. We're invited to see beyond the depiction we've created. If we step back and take some time here, we might feel the discomfort of lack. We might feel our own financial woes, the fragility of our health, the transient nature of our hearts. We might squirm a bit at the discomfort of Mary's social status and the fact that the couple was repeatedly turned away. We might wonder where in our midst mothers are turned away and people are scorned. We might wonder where we can provide a box, a blanket, a cushion in the lives of those around us. We've created this idea of utopia, of holiday decorations and lavish gifts, and pretty dresses. We are living in a time in which lack is accentuated, and in which those who can't keep up very likely feel like the characters in the manger.
God doesn't ask us to be perfect. He/She loves us in our imperfection. In this season of Advent, when we celebrate peace, hope, joy and love, the views of a realistic manger and the results of a google search can make the heart heavy. Our efforts at perfection often frustrate us. But God has left the top off. We are free to hop about and spread our wings in hope. We can feel the weight of reality so that we don't lose touch with the needs of the world; but I believe that open top asks more of us. It asks us to take the comfort we need to be restored and revived, but then to explore where there is need beyond the box. Where can we provide a box, a blanket or a cushion in the lives of those around us?