It isn't like the one I picture when I sing Silent Night.
You can smell it before you see it. Fetid and filthy, the sheep crowd in at the end of a day of foraging for food. In the summer, flies buzz. In the winter, stench and sludge freeze solid. I don't want to go near; it is too dirty.
I often pass the sheep and their shepherd as I walk to and from work. I pity him a little, silently thankful that my own job doesn't require me to mess around in mud and muck.
And I walk past, humming Silent Night and picturing my Savior born on a pristine winter's night. Snow falling softly and stars glistening brightly. The air smells of fresh, sweet hay. The stable is inexplicably warm and comforting. It is beautiful and peaceful... just how I want to imagine my Jesus' entrance into the world would be.
But I have learned stables don't smell like fresh, sweet hay. They smell like dirty sheep. And I'm starting to think that this is perhaps a better picture of the Incarnation.
It's shocking, I know. And it hurts to look at it. Perhaps it has even offended you a little. But let's be honest... for God-made-flesh, wouldn't birth into a stable feel more like this than our romanticized and sanitized Hallmark-inspired figurines delicately arranged on our mantels and under our trees lead us to believe? Let's take it a little further... wouldn't any incarnation look like this, even if He'd been born into the Ritz-Carleton instead of joining our world in a stable?
There's no way around the fact that incarnation means coming to a fetid and filthy world. Jesus came into a world where babies are born and left on street corners or in dumpsters. Young girls and boys are sold into prostitution. Refugees spend their lives waiting in squalid camps. It's a world with wars and rumors of war. Dirty water and dirty air. Disease. Sickness. Death. Destruction. Sorrow... unending sorrow. Flies and vultures buzz over little ones with swollen bellies. Stench and sludge freeze solid and become a playground for bare-foot children.
It is too dirty, and yet He came near.
He came near to "mess around in our mud and our muck."
Emmanuel, God With Us... right here in our squalor. In the brothels and the slums. In the orphanages and the crack houses. In the refugee camps and the prisons. In the pristine suburban houses hiding behind-closed-doors-screaming-yelling-fights. He's with us... in the room of a child who just learned mom and dad can't make it work, crying himself to sleep into his pillow. In the bathroom with the girl who has her finger down her throat. He's God With Us... with the teenagers who are cutting and the ones who are using. With the dads who are cheating and the moms who are flirting.
He's with us in all of our brokenness. We can't clean up our grime and dirt. We can't get rid of our stench. Yet He's not asking us to try. He's not waiting for us to make room for Him in the inns of our lives. He just comes into our filthy stables, when we're ashamed and naked in a fallen garden, telling us that He is “like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day.” (Ezekiel 34:12)
This is one of the beautiful mysteries of the incarnation... He didn't wait for us to clean up our own messes, but instead entered into our messes; always, always with us. He put on human skin, turning a God-forsaken place into His holy temple by entering into this world, laying aside His own rights, and willingly becoming a shepherd for a bunch of dirty sheep.
I see the dirty sheep and pity the shepherd. He sees the dirty sheep and becomes a shepherd.
I want my heart to look more like His.
This is part of some incarnational thoughts I want to share between now and Christmas. Earlier I posted about our Preposition Problems, and there will be more to come.
I really want this to be a conversation, so I have an idea. For those who feel so inclined, please find a picture -- however unorthodox it might be -- that you think represents the Incarnation. You can write something about why you're seeing Jesus in this new light, and share a link to your post with me. I realize this is stretching, and that most of us feel more comfortable with conventional pictures of Jesus... you know, the kind on Christmas cards... but I've found this new image to be especially challenging, and I hope you'll find and share some pictures of your own. I know I have a lot more to learn about Jesus, and seeing Him through your eyes can help...
This picture was first shown to me at a retreat for leaders of various NGOs and non-profits that focus on serving the lost, forgotten, broken and discarded members of society. Maybe because we see so much pain and suffering, a picture of this kind of Jesus is actually comforting in some way. I don't know where it first came from, so I can't give proper credit.