I have a little collection.
Can you guess what it is?
I'll give you three tries to see if you can get it right.
Every year that I put it out, some of the hay shifts from the rooftop, and some of the grass pieces fall out of the manger. It makes just a little bit of a mess as I set it up and pack it away each year. It doesn't have that pristine quality of some of the Nativity scenes I've found out there in the world.
And I'm thinking that it is that bit of messiness, that bit of realism, that I especially like about it.
It's not enough that Jesus gave up his divinity to take on the form of a human being, coming to live among those he created, most of whom wouldn't even give him a second look, let alone recognize him as part of the Holy Trinity, present at the very creation of the universe.
It was only recently, probably after giving birth to my two daughters, that I really thought about what it must have been like for Mary to travel such an uncomfortable distance right before her due date, and then to actually experience labor and delivery in a barn. How many of us still tell horror stories about our children's births, when we were ensconced in clean bed linen at a 21st century hospital with an epidural taking the edge off the worst of the pain?
And I've also considered the sounds and smells that would have surrounded Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus on that birth night long ago: the stench of the barn animals and the cacophony of moos and baas and whinneys.
But something else occurred to me the other day: the population explosion that Bethlehem was probably experiencing if everyone had headed back to town, as Mary and Joseph had, in order to be counted in the census. After all, there were no proper indoor spaces to give the Holy Family a decent room for the night, so I have to believe that in addition to all the normal sounds of nighttime and animals, there was also an unusual din from all the people who had crowded into town that week.
I'm thinking that even without the rumbling of cars down the street and the noise of a hundred cell phone conversations, there was still plenty of din and activity surrounding baby Jesus in those first days. No doubt the local economy of Bethlehem boomed--and then got a bit stretched beyond its means--as all those travelers sought shelter, food, and necessities for their time away from home.
I've always been taught that in Jesus' humanity, he experienced everything that we experience, which contributes to his great compassion for us, and his ability to walk with us through whatever we face. Considering the circumstances of his birth has made me realize that he probably "gets" the crazy that surrounds us during the holiday season. He was surrounded by crazy from the moment of his birth!
What does it matter to me that Jesus understands "the crazy"? For one thing, it helps me understand that I don't have to achieve a perfectly serene, tidy, quiet space in order to spend time with Him in prayer. If there's just a touch of crazy going on around me, he is more than able to spend time in communion with me in the midst of it.
If my thoughts or prayers are a touch chaotic, it's nothing he hasn't encountered before, even at the moment of his birth.
My piles of Christmas decorations waiting to get displayed around the house are nothing compared to the bales of hay piled up around his manger.
My children's cries for making gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies, and going Christmas shopping, and "please please please get me an iPad for Christmas" (not gonna happen; the litany of request and denial is like a printed script at this point!) are nothing compared to the sounds of the animals reacting to three human beings invading their already-cramped stable space.
If I get distracted because I'm weighing my usual responsibilities with winter colds, extra errands, and holiday activity planning, it's nothing compared to Mary's swirling thoughts as she remembers her visit from the angel, her unprecedented conception, Joseph's counter-cultural level of understanding, and her unconventional birth story.
Hay askew, grass tumbling from the manger, debris to sweep aside--sounds about right for this holiday season.
Jesus, in the middle of the crazy.
We have to be willing to look for him there because that is most assuredly where he will be found!