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Born the King of Angels

Our family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. Nighttime is more magical than
daylight. The tree is all lit up and glows like its ancestor, the tree of fire. The candles
flicker and cast mysterious shadows throughout the room. The packages under the
glowing tree seem dark and wonder-filled. Santa comes at night. The angels visited the
shepherds at night. We imagine the birth of Jesus taking place at night. The light only
makes sense in dark places.

Having young children has made me see Christmas in a fresh light. I’m intrigued by this
whole business of presents. I remember being a kid and getting an electronic football
game from my grandparents. It was my big present that year. However, I spent more
time playing with the yo-yo I got in my stocking.

Toddlers are more interested in the package than the gift. They get the package opened
and, see the toy inside, and then proceed to play with the paper and the box. As children
get older, they lose all interest in the package. They rip it apart like a tornado to get at the
toy inside.

My grandmother hardly distinguished between the package and its contents. She seemed
genuinely surprised to be receiving anything at all. She would painstakingly open the
package, admiring the paper and every fold in it. For her, the package seemed to flow
right into the gift.

Everyday since we have put up the tree, my son has asked, “Is it Christmas yet?” I don’t
know what he will do next week when I finally answer, “yes”. It reminds me of Simeon,
the man who was promised he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ. To God, his
prayers must have seemed like my son’s. “Is it Christmas yet?” One day God answered
“yes”. Simeon finally saw the eight-day-old Christ child. He said, “You can take me in
peace now. I have seen salvation.”

We have put up the Christmas decorations and our house has never looked so good. Even
the tackiest of knick-knacks are strangely fitting and beautiful. We have two nativity
scenes. One is cloth and the children can play with it, the other is fragile and off-limits.
[By the way, if you break the baby Jesus, will they fix it at the Assembly of God church?]

The Nativity scenes are interesting for what they leave out or get wrong. For example,
neither of our scenes have figures that look Jewish. They look more like a Buckingham
Palace crowd. This would be comical were not for the Church’s hideous history in the
treatment of Jews.

The scenes are also much too clean. This was a stable, after all. Perhaps a straw and
dung scented spray could be applied like we do with evergreen scents. I suppose you
should include the smells of birth too, since they can be quite strong.
The manger. Manger has the same root as the word mangy. A manger is a trough. A
holder for cattle fodder. The manger had animal spit on it. To get the impact, sing “Away
in the Manger” but replace “manger” with “trough” – the dissonant feel is fitting.

Don’t blame me for the description – I didn’t make the story up. These are the less-than-
humble beginnings of the Christ, the Messiah, the King of Kings. Believing in a virgin
birth is nothing compared to comprehending the surroundings, the wrappings, of this
royal birth. It’s right out of a fairy tale. No wonder this King’s compassionate.

And the Virgin. Our nativity scenes do not present Mary as someone who has just given
birth. She’s kneeling, relaxed, and clean. They also make her too old. If she was typical
for her culture, she was about fourteen.

There is a wonderful tradition that says Mary wasn’t the first person asked to bear the
Christ. She was simply the first one to say “yes”. Maybe only a fourteen-year-old would
have been brave or crazy enough to take on that kind of trouble. Frederick Buechner
writes concerning Mary;

The real trouble came when what the angel announced would happen happened, but in a way she
couldn’t have dreamed: Squatting there in the straw with her thighs wrenched apart while out of
her pain she dropped into the howling world something that looked like nothing so much as raw
beefsteak: who was the one the angel had said was to be called Holy, the Son of the Most High:
who was the Word itself fleshed with – of all flesh – hers.

Love incarnated. My grandmother and Simeon were right. Sometimes the gift and the
package are indeed one and the same.