Journey to the Manger

I spent the better part of yesterday with a beautiful group of women. We had a simple retreat at a lovely home, with individual nativity scenes set up for quiet personal reflection. After some coffee and goodies, we were given basic instructions and sent to our spots for  extended quiet time. 

It was a contemplative day. After the morning and afternoon sessions (which were divided by a literal feast that left us all extremely grateful and extremely full) there was time to share something from our own silent time. It was pretty astounding to hear what had gone on in the imaginations of these thoughtful, creative and sensitive ladies. I offer below my own reflections from the day, partly in response to their collective request. I hope that it will encourage you as we move out of the Christmas season (the twelve days of Christmas officially end today, on Epiphany), and into a more ordinary season of life. 

IMG_0214In the middle of an expansive sky brilliant with a thousand thousand diamonds, in the middle of the sandy hills littered with the occasional flicker of a traveler or home, with the town at the edge of the horizon, its inhabitants secure and snug with a blind eye to their pregnant need, there is a stable.

Rock and mud, hay and spittle; animals live within. Rough fur, liquid brown eyes, wet pink noses and steamy breath; shifting, stamping, lowing, snorting, snuffing and grunting; it’s alive and a place of rest from the cold of night and the heat of day. Like our hearts, it waits for fullness to come having nothing to offer but its empty alive self.

The owners occupy a space not much larger on the crest of a nearby dune. He is kind but distracted by concerns of his silver trinket trade. She is busy with her full family, meals and beds for all the visitors and her own backache and heartache. Her husband’s kind offer of the stable to the travelers she overheard, but it’s not til the dark of night the recalls it. With a sigh and a groan, she rises, slips into the inky night to check on this traveling couple.

Carrying a tray with leftover dinner, she arrives at the entrance to the cave in her robe and slippers. The warmth of the stable wafts over her, chasing away the shivers of the night. Sweat and sand, hooves and waste assault her nose; heavy breathing and cries of pain ambush her ears and her heart. With flashes of her own births pulled from the recesses of memory, she flies to the side of the young man.

His eyes, frightfully wide but hand uncommonly steady, she knows he is a good man. “I’m here to help,” she speaks. Sliding the tray aside, she kneels in front of the girl and sees herself: alone, afraid, but with a good man and resolve in her heart. Blood and sweat run mingled down. Pain and pushing, the long struggle and waiting, a cry for quick release and He is come! Oh joyful arrival, long awaited delight of mother and father, the promise of hope, of something new.

Her own brow drips with sweat, his tunic shed, the young girl’s face is flushed with pride. She sips  some water and nibbles leftovers as she brings the babe to nurse. The woman sighs, wipes her brow and surprises herself as she offers this babe a kiss.

Slipping out of the cave, of her family’s stable and security and into the brisk air, breath steaming before her face, she sees a thousand thousand diamonds. One shines brighter. It points, announces, declares – He is come! The night swells and brightens as if the news could not be contained by the heavens.

She slides into her bed, against the comfort of her own husband’s body. Barely a minute before she is asleep and missing the parade of hosts in the skies, not far from her own door.  Shepherds without tent or cover, without pretense or respect, those charged with the care of lowly beasts, they heard the heavens declare – He is come! With mystified hearts and eager smiles and hope dawning within, this ragged bunch journeys to the child and his parents.

The next few weeks are a blur of silver trinket sales, triple breakfasts, double washings, extra animal feed and questions about the baby. Why would all these people come to a stable to see a foreign baby? Amid the comings and goings, the ordinary and the extras she wonders. About the star. About the visitors. About that baby.

As she approaches the cave night swirling behind her, she stops stock still in utter amazement. At least now she is dressed, not in her robe and slippers, for before her is the most extraordinary caravan she has ever seen: camels upon camels, chests of gold and jewels, men dressed as kings, gifts of sweet smelling incense and alabaster jars of myrrh, purple silks, red and gold porcelain, blue and silver linens.

Mutely she watches the young girl and the good man present their child and receive these guests as if it were the proper order. She hears words of laud, gentle murmurs of thanks. Marveling, she feels the unusual night breeze and senses the mysterious holiness that enveloped and surprised her when she kissed the infant that first night.

Again, the weeks blow by in a rush of dirty clothes, shoveling hay, squabbling children, counting drachmas, and dreamless sleep. But one day, all that activity slows and the chaos retreats. Once again she’s staring a quieter stable and a calmer home. The travelers and the visitors are all gone; the extras and the hubbub have receded and once again she wonders: who were they? Who was that baby? She smiles remembering that kiss, her gift to the baby.

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