It began some years before we had children, in a dark winding alley filled with bright color and exotic scents. My husband and I were given the gift of going to Jordan and Israel the winter after we married. We wandered the Old City in Jerusalem, sipping murky sweet demitasse of Turkish coffee and wondering at the rich cacophony of culture, history and life compressed together. Although we didn’t have much money for souvenirs, finely carved olivewood figures representing the nativity, arranged on dusty shop shelves, kept calling my name. This, we decided would be our remembrance- an olive wood manger scene to shape our family Christmas traditions for years to come.
We chose with care. Peering in shop after shop we found our favorite craftsmen and we compared quality and prices. Gentle Joseph leaning in to the baby, a graceful but tired looking mother Mary- donkeys that almost looked curious- they were practically perfect. Our dilemma came in finding a nativity with a baby Jesus who didn’t look like a miniature Elvis. Yes, that was a problem. Nearly every holy family we were drawn to, sported a suave little white Jesus with a full pompadore hairdo and a coy grin. When we finally found a sweet brown-faced olivewood Jesus with only a little hair we knew we’d found what we were seeking.
From that time on, as soon as our fresh evergreen tree went up each year, the olive wood figures were arranged front and center. Placed on a mantle, the piano or a prominent cabinet- where they could be touched and moved about and enjoyed- they were reminders of a real family with a real baby long ago.
By the time we had preschool children I knew that I wanted my girls to know this little Jesus not only as a real baby from long ago, but as a companion and a light today. Knowing God as the one who came as a real incarnate, flesh and blood, baby with a diaper to change and who, at the same time, embodies the mystery of the God of eternity here with us now, changes things.
When we are looking forward to meeting someone we get ready. We may or may not be patient when we wait, but wait we must. And preparing ourselves while we wait makes the waiting better in every way. Till that point in our house, Jesus in his manger always made his appearance along with the whole nativity entourage- no waiting. Here’s the Christmas tree, and, here’s Jesus and friends. The Advent season when our girls were three and seven we decided to slow down and prepare ourselves for Jesus to appear.
We talked about our plan and introduced it to our faith community at that time, a small non-denominational church with no liturgical or Advent practices. What might happen for each of us if we were to all focus on preparing to meet Jesus each day of Advent? We started with a bale of hay and an invitation to make a soft welcoming bed for Jesus in each of our homes. The first Sunday in Advent that bale of hay was situated at the front of the sanctuary. Each household (with children or no children) was given a brown bag to fill with hay to take home with this invitation:
Pay attention to your words and actions. Notice if you are expressing gratitude or kindness for others. When you do—add a piece of hay to make a manger bed for Jesus. If you notice someone else being kind or grateful, add hay for those expressions too. Before we knew it we had a veritable kindness fest going on, and a growing, welcoming manger bed for our olivewood Jesus boy to make his appearance in.
The hay was messy and the pile grew happily larger over the weeks of Advent…and anticipation for Jesus arrival grew daily—as did our awareness that we were changing our own habits and our treatment of each other as we prepared. The waiting became joyous rather than anxious. Our meaningful nativity scene had never seemed more special. On Christmas Eve we were ready. We lit our last Advent candle and brought that wooden baby out to his cushy bed. Eyes glowed and we all knew, something remarkable had taken place.
On Christmas morning, every household gathered their beds of hay and brought those straws of kindness, intention, preparation and gratitude—the symbols of our anticipation for meeting and welcoming the Christ-child — to the front of the sanctuary. We brought our stories of how we had not only made room for Jesus to arrive, but in the process, made more room inside ourselves, more room for each other, and more room for love. There was never a better-looking heap of hay on church carpet as there was that Christmas morning.
21 years later that messy pile of hay and the willing spirits of the small people who made it grow quickly can still instruct me. How will I create room inside myself this Christmas Season? Who can I make welcome at my table? Am I able to I slow down enough to notice my own words and actions? When do I stop and affirm an ordinary kindness in someone else? How often do I simply stop to breathe- and clear out internal space? Can I choose to quiet my own thoughts so that I really hear others, especially those who may think differently than I? Who do I make room for? How can I cultivate anticipation and joy instead of harried activity? What will I choose and what will I invite those around me to choose?
How will we each create messy managers of welcome and love this Christmas? What kind of a manger can we create in this world together? And who will we invite to join in?
Kelly Bean is a local and international leader and consultant as well as an author and activist for positive change in the community and around the world. From United Nations Commission on the Status of Women panels, to mud huts in Rwanda, to a variety of venues around the USA, to living rooms in her own city of Portland, Oregon, Kelly Bean encourages community building for the sake of a better world.
Community Cultivator http://www.kelly-bean.com/about/
International Executive Director http://www.africanroad.org/
Co-founder and Consultant http://greatergood.works/