The season of Advent is beginning again. Advent—a season so full of tradition, so full of memory, so full of legend. And a season so full, often over-full, bustling and bursting with the exhausting activity of keeping traditions, creating memories and recalling legends.
And as Advent begins, Luke comes to us, as a kind of a holy ghost of Christmas past, bidding us to lay aside for the moment our Christmas lists, leave the half-trimmed tree, pause the holiday movie, dry our hands from washing the cookie pans and follow him. And as we do, all we see begins to swirl into an unfamiliar darkness.
Suddenly, we find ourselves standing in what we somehow know is a small, ancient Palestinian village on an unusually starry night. The shapes and shadows of buildings look strange. The human and animal noises sound strange. The smoky scents of fire, foods, burning oils and manure smell strange. The utter absence of electric lighting is strange. We reach for our smartphone. It’s dead.
Disturbing Advent Sight
Luke leads us beyond the village and down a dark, twisting rocky path to some ignored, ignoble spot where we suddenly come upon a sight that we find surprisingly disturbing. Not 10 feet away, asleep on the ground, near a small fire that has burned down to embers, is a peasant girl. She has bits of straw in her long, messy, dark hair, and she is wrapped in dirty cloaks and a blanket. A split-second look tells us how difficult this night has been for her. And she is so young.
Even more distressing, we see beside her a small, crude, dirty feeding trough in which lays a sleeping newborn, wrapped tightly in unsanitary, blood-smeared cloths.
We take a few tentative steps forward. We know this child, and we know this girl. But the scene is strange to us. It does not look anything like the manger scenes and illustrated books of our childhood. Our Advent traditions did not prepare us for the earthy realness of the real Advent.
Mary is not serene. She’s bone weary. And no divine, heavenly glow emanates from the child. He is not even especially beautiful (Isaiah 53:2). In fact, there is nothing about this child to suggest the unfathomable mystery of who he is. We are unnerved to realize that had we not already known, we would not have recognized him at all.
This scene, the real Christmas, has nothing of the feeling of the Christmas we know. It has all the feel of undesired, desperate homelessness—more like a scene we’d find under a bridge than under our Christmas tree. And we are hit with the shock of a truth we’ve known all our lives: This young girl just gave birth to a baby—the Baby—in a pasture!
Our visceral response is pity and sadness. This poor girl and her baby! We know this story, but as we see it as it really was, it seems so wrong. Our impulse is to do something to help them. We look incredulously at Luke. He, calmly looking from the child to us, quietly says, “There was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). No place? No place besides a field for the Maker of the world? The cosmic incongruity stuns us.
“Surely we can find some room somewhere!” we respond. “Can you?” Luke replies. Then he turns and begins back up the path.
We look back at girl and the child, just as Palestinian darkness begins to swirl with a familiar light.