brokenness

Why Are Manger Scenes So Weird?

A typical Christmas manger scene. Image courtesy nomadCro/shutterstock.com
A typical Christmas manger scene. Image courtesy nomadCro/shutterstock.com

Figures in nativity scenes are pretty weird, aren't they? This is true of most manger scenes, whether we’re talking about the ceramic one under a tree or the statuesque one in a church or the plastic one on a lawn. First off, there’s Mary, always looking very fresh and calm and full of reflection — which is quite impressive considering that she just gave birth without any sedative. Then there’s Joseph, doing some kind of man-thing off to the side — holding a lantern or a large stick. He looks totally composed, too.

And there’s the baby Jesus with a full head of hair, wide-open eyes and arms outstretched like he’s ready to belt out a song.

Not to ruin anyone’s Christmas spirit here, but what the heck?

If our manger scenes were realistic, Mary would be recovering from a painful labor full of sweat and blood, with a look on her face that’s anything but serene. And Joseph — wouldn’t he be a nervous wreck, too? His hand too shaky to hold a lantern?

And about that newborn. Shouldn’t he be red-faced and screaming? Eyes clenched closed and wisps of hair stuck to the top of a head that‘s still odd-shaped from all the squeezing?

Instead, we’ve sanitized and romanticized it. We’ve removed all the blood and sweat and tears and pain and goo. It’s no longer something real. We’ve left out all the messy parts. The oh-my-God-what-now parts. The I’m-screaming-as-loud-as-I-can-because-it-really-hurts parts. The oh-no-I’ve-stepped-in-the-animal-droppings parts. 

The real parts.

Romancing the Word (September 2012)

By the late Middle Ages, which book of the Bible had inspired the most commentaries? The surprising answer is: Song of Solomon—a book that never mentions God once. There were more than 200 commentaries! A quirky piece of Christian trivia? Maybe. But it isn’t trivial that for more than a millennium this collection of love poems was taken as the key to opening the innermost meaning of the whole biblical revelation. It was read—or rather explored through contemplation—as a poetic allegory of the quest of a God to awaken the creature’s reciprocal desire. God, overflowing with yearning desire for creation, seeks union with us and arouses our own latent longing to be loved passionately, totally, and unconditionally.

A single reading this month provides a rare stimulus to explore this erotic poem as the Word of God. Some may want to take it as a signal to celebrate the sacredness of sex and intimacy, though we must note that marriage, home, domesticity, and childbearing lie entirely outside the poem’s scope. But it may be more adventurous to find in the hottest pages of the Bible permission to reinterpret the love of God through erotic metaphor, as our Christian forbears did. Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore gives us a hint: Why not reimagine the idea of the will of God—usually supposed to be a preordained plan that calls only for our obedience—in terms of God’s longing for union with us, “the wanting-to-be of God in our lives”?

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ September 2 ]
In the Mirror
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15;
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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Reflecting the Image of God

In reading some of the responses to my last post Embodied Theology, I was reminded of an essay I wrote for a class last semester, so I've rewritten part of it as a blog post to help clarify my position.

Embodied theology is rooted in the doctrine of creation. Why did God create us? As some have proposed, God couldn't not create or love us -- it's just part of God's nature. As a relational giver and lover within the Trinity, God couldn't help but be the same thing in relation with humanity. Who we are comes from God. We are not by nature sinful broken creatures, but creatures shaped in the very image of God.

Tools for Prayer

Yesterday afternoon I found out that ABC news plans to dedicate it programming today to "Hunger at Home: Crisis in America." It precipitated my writing of this post which I had planned to add as a later addition to a series on tools for prayer.

One important item in our prayer toolkit is knowledge of our hurting world. Not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge that equips us to respond. Becoming aware of the needs in our world can lead us into a deeper understanding of the ache in God's heart for our hurting friends and neighbors. It can also connect us to our own self-centered indifference that often makes us complacent when God wants us to be involved. And it can stimulate us to respond to situations that we once felt indifferent to.

The Harry Potter Prayer

oh yes I amphoto © 2007 Laura Askelin | more info (via: Wylio)Though I like a rousing round of ave maria's as much as the next person, the past few centuries of church prayer trends have eschewed Latin in favor of the vernacular -- that is, the language of the people. And to the tune of 450 million copies in more than 70 translations (and counting), it's clear that people the world around speak the language of Harry Potter. Or rather, the story of Harry Potter speaks to them.

So as I watched the final Hogwarts Express depart from Platform 9¾ in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II this past weekend (slightly teary-eyed, I confess), I started to wonder: What might it sound like to pray in the language of Harry Potter -- language that clearly resonates with folks around the world? Would it be cheesy? Probably. Profane? Perhaps. But I figured the God who relied on earthly parables about wineskins and fig trees to explain the Kingdom would understand.

Baptizing for Life

My 7-year-old nephew steps cautiously into the baptismal pool. Surrounded by a few hundred people attending the noon Mass, he yields his shivery thin boy-body back to the waters of life. His younger sister and brother, faces upturned in wonderment, stand below him waiting their turn.

This day had not come easily. When my nephew was born, my brother and sister-in-law were just shy of celebrating three years of sobriety. Every morning during that time, separately and together, they had chosen to live consciously, with eyes wide open; to admit powerlessness over drugs or alcohol; to ask for God’s help.

Those years before sobriety were a time of sickness and slavery. The etymology of “addiction” conjures up giving up one’s name and selling oneself. In addiction the individual becomes debilitated, diseased, obliterated, while the ravenous demon grows stronger. In addiction one trades a unique identity for a drink, a hit, for “pottage” (see Esau in Genesis 25:30-35).

Of course, addiction is not an individual disease; it’s a family sickness. It has required us, as a family, to look hard at our co-dependencies and denial, our anger, depression, and lack of self-regard. Gaining sobriety hasn’t been only for my brother and sister-in-law; it’s been for all of us. Their tenacity has led us into new terrain. I don’t know where we’ll end up, but we have matured as a family.

When my nephew’s head sinks under water, I think about how many of my ancestors also had this moment. For some it was at a small marble font in a city church; for others it was a Nebraska farm pond or in the yard of a Cajun country church with a circuit-riding priest.

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