Many years ago, after leading a Christmas Eve service like this one, the minister and writer, Frederick Buechner, had just settled into bed after working late into the night with his bride getting everything in place for Christmas: lights, ornaments, stockings, once-hidden presents set under the tree. The children tucked in. It was then, under his cozy blanket, that he remembered his neighbor’s sheep. He’d asked Frederick to feed them while he was away and, in the press of all the matters that make up a clergyman’s life, he’d forgotten, as I often forget, an important detail. Unfed sheep. Frederick tells us what happened next:
So down the hill I go through knee-deep snow. I get two bales of hay from the barn and carry them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and I light it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as I snap the baling twine, shake the squares of hay apart and start scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it … puffs of their breath showing in the air. I reach to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly I realize where I am. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where I am is the manger.
I almost missed it…missed where I was standing. I whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. I who on my best days believe that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that I had just been in the manger. The world is the manger.
My world is the manger. Your world is the manger. We’re all in the manger where Christ is laid.
The Word become flesh and made his home among us, and Mary laid him in a manger, laid him in the heart of the world, for us and for our salvation.
“Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed,” as some unholy ‘doctors’ do. The everlasting made fragile. Incarnation. The scene is not tame like a Hallmark card. It is not beautiful. As with all non-anesthetized childbearing, agonized labor led to his birth. Even as celestial choirs serenade the shepherds with Gloria, there’s an angelic battle in the heavens (Revelation 12), eternity enters time, a tearing occurs in the fabric of reality.
“We can only cover our eyes and shudder before it, kneel before this: ‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.’”
He came down. He moved into our neighborhood. Not until then—not until it occurs to us that only Love could do something so self-emptying and impoverishing—do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life that Mary now holds in her arms.
He who cannot be contained was contained in her teenage womb. The immense omnipotence of the Creator made as vulnerable as a baby, flailing his arms against the cold and the dark. The one who made all things now utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph for food, shelter, warmth, and life. Laid in a feed trough. Laid amid animal breath and straw and shit. Laid in our midst, for us and for our salvation.
I’m not an Anglophile (on the order of my elder daughters and wife) and I’m not naive about the decline of the Church of England or of the complications of state churches and the cultures they either inspire or oppress, but yesterday’s ceremony touched me to the core and made me wonder at the upside of a realm where the church is wedded to the state and at why we hold such a sharp separation of church and state as we have in America as such a supreme, unadulterated good.
Westminster Abbey was yesterday a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven. Kate’s brother, James Middleton, read Romans 12 with such conviction and presence. The Bishop of London’s sermon—which began quoting Catherine of Siena (“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”), which didn’t hesitate to identify Jesus Christ as Lord over and over again, and which soared like a fiery arrow straight to the heart of Christian Marriage: self-sacrificial love modeled on the impossible charity of the Cross—was an unexpected tonic (though I discerned the Spirit of God heavily upon him). Rowan Williams shined, looking and sounding something a lot more like the Eastern heirarch he might have been (would like to be?) had the late seventeenth-century Nonjurors reunited with Orthodoxy. And Kate, William’s fairest, brought new meaning to the words “a bride adorned for her husband.”
The trees down the center aisle on either side were a stroke of genius on Kate’s part, evoking a restored Garden. Standing amid Westminster they suffused the nearly 800-year edifice with resurrection life. The sort of certain, beatific vision of God that gave energy and creativity to the raising of this structure over a period of three hundred years is almost impossible for moderns to imagine and we could never reproduce its craftsmanship. So much for our vaunted progress and ingenuity. And so much, also, for the so-called “Dark Ages.”