You may have noticed that Seth who oversees our parish maintenance has placed the animals in the stable scene outside in front of our church. I appreciated this as the day after he put the figures out I came across this quote from the author Evelyn Underhill,
“Human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us feed on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.”
The stable scene and the quote prompt a good examination in preparation for the coming Christmas celebration. What are the animals inhabiting the stable of my heart? Truth be told, any person who would say, “I have no animals. My stable is completely clean,” either does not know his or her own heart, is a fool or a liar or maybe a combination of all three. Honestly, what are the animals in the stable of our hearts?
We can even get quite creative in this examination. The ox of passion might be the passion of lust but it also might be the passion of anger, control or narcissism. The ass of prejudice might be prejudice against the one who is different, the stranger or the person I have already judged in my own heart. But there can be other animals. The strutting rooster of pride and arrogance, the fat, squawking hen of gossip, the goat of resentment, the pig of sloth, the farm rat of jealousy… What are the animals in our stables? A good way to prepare for Christmas is to honestly and creatively look within and not be afraid to acknowledge and name those animals that we find within our stables. A spiritual truth – when we can creatively and even mockingly name the animals that mill about in our heart’s stable, they actually begin to lose their power – for example, when we know our pride is at work we can chuckle to ourselves, “there goes that strutting rooster again!”
The quote from Underhill goes further though and brings out another deep dynamic in the Christian mystery when she writes that it is precisely within the stable, between all the animals that reside there, that Christ must be born. It is not we who first make our stables nice, neat and clean in order to then welcome the Christ child; it is the Christ child who first chooses to be born within the crowded mess of both our world’s and hearts’ stables and by his presence brings the light and healing that we yearn for. The Nativity stable continually instructs us to avoid the danger – even heresy (Pelagianism) – of believing that it is we who first cleanse our stables by our own efforts in order to then win and warrant the coming of our savior, the gift of grace. It does not work that way. God first arrives – even into the mess and pressing crowd of our little stables – and this is what brings life and the healing.
Both prophets in today’s readings proclaim this to us. The prophet Baruch proclaims the glory of Jerusalem but specifies that it is a glory that comes from God. “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God…” The prophet invites Israel to live and rejoice in this gift from God! Even John the Baptist – who is that voice crying out in the desert, who is that one who is sent to prepare the way of the Lord – proclaims that it is the “salvation of God” that all flesh will see. God arrives first. “And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid…”
Soon Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds and eventually the three kings will also arrive at the stable but before all of that it is worthwhile to just sit and acknowledge the animals in our stables. It is worthwhile to honestly admit their presence and to know that Christ is not put off by them – that he will be born within their midst, that he will be laid in their manger and that the animals – by his presence, healing and grace – will then become the very first to kneel down in adoration.