It was a rag-tag crew of folks this past Christmas in the neighbourhood. All of us, gathered together in a gritty, local church for some thoughts about the day and shared together in a celebratory meal afterwards. Although there were only a few of us - we were not alone. That was the point really. We gathered around a manger scene with a 91 year old doll (gift to the paster many years ago as a young girl) as Jesus. Jesus was a girl. The carols lacked power. The talk (about receiving and giving) although a great idea, lacked polish and didn't pack a punch. Actually, as I looked around I realised none of us needed a punch... we needed hugs, turkey and Jesus Himself. The God who draws near. So, we sang, we prayed, we lit some candles for those far away, we received presents for ourselves and some for others and we ate. Strangers really.
The feeling for me was not familiar. I've served christmas dinners before. I'm in the Salvation Army for pete's sake. Serving people on Christmas day is part of the deal. But this one was different. Because we shared the day with another church it didn't feel like I was serving. It felt like I was receiving. And that is a whole other thing. Because the truth of that day for me was that I was alone. Our families thousands of miles away - our friends with their broods on the special day. Our reality this Christmas was a little closer to the authentic kind. And although it reads well in Phillippians as a demonstration of humility it feels a little, well, lonely at the time.
Now, don't get me wrong. It was the kind of experience that deepens your reflection, develops your spiritual awareness, and softens your empathy for those in that situation all year round. For me it was a morning... and even that morning was bathed in the love and company of my husband and son and the assurance of prayers and skype calls from home and the evening spent with new friends and family God provides. It was not despairing. But it was enlightening. It was deepening. And although the invitation to hang out in those places come to us - we often don't take them. They can be dangerous places where God is hiding, in distressing disguises (as Mother Theresa put it). But I want the boy in the manger stall. Even with rejection, isolation, fear and terror - even with the smell of manure, scratchy hay and the rag tag mix of shepherds and foreigners... I want to gather round the manger... the incarnation - God made flesh... messy, ugly and alone. Because somehow in that place - God draws near.