With St Chad, St Michael and St Aidan watching every move, Mark Whyte carefully takes a sample of grout from the... read more
I was helping a young family set out their nativity set, and amongst the creatures, I
was delighted to find a rooster and couple of chooks (that'd be nice, first thing on
Boxing Day morning), and some birds to perch on the stable roof. I was glad to see
the varied collection of animals, because I am convinced that, when we take the
time to appreciate the animal kingdom fully – including those gathered in the crib
scene – we see a mirror to aspects of humanity.
The little one who I was helping assemble the manger scene was trying to bluetack
the birds into the eaves of the stable. It reminded me of this [image]. I was busy
doing some cabling in the loft at Taranaki Retreat, when I noticed, very strangely, a
big pile of hay. Now, there's some odd things in that loft. But not usually hay.
Enough to fill several carrier bags. Then, looking round, I discovered the nest. Up in
the eaves. And gazed, openmouthed, wondering at its construction. That, with such
persistence, such a massive quantity of grass and sticks had been gathered, by beak
alone, and carried aloft to be poked in, until finally, something had stuck and
provided a secure enough base to build a sturdy nest. All those strands and sticks
and bits and pieces hopefully poked through, which had just fallen out inside; what
a vulnerable action this nestbuilding was. In this little event, I have learned so
much of God; of God's vulnerability, hope and persistence, mirrored in the work of a
couple of his humble creations – the birds of the air.
...Because the incarnation – Christmas was so, so vulnerably configured; almost
like that nest; so many things that could have gone wrong; a plan so dependent on
just ordinary people for God's saving work to succeed. From a teenaged girl in the
person of Mary, all the way through to an angry killer in the shape of St Paul; God
didn't force or engineer any of the people to be involved; the shepherds, the magi;
the disciples; even Mary or Joseph; each of them were there of their own volition
and freewill. Could it be that the plan of the Almighty was so incredibly precarious?
Isn't that the wonder of it all? What if it had fallen through?
We were delighted to hear a peeppeeping of baby birds from that nest a little while
later in the year; mission successful. And it was around that time that I discovered a
second nest, at the other end of the loft. Here, there was a much smaller pile of hay
on the floor – just a couple of handfuls, really – those lucky birds had made it work a
bit more easily... But on the floor, beneath the nest, sad to see, three tiny baby
swallows.... shriveled up and dead. Two such similar initiatives in the same eaves;
one had ended in a little tragedy as those birds fell from the nest and never made it
to fly. And yet both nestbuilding initiatives had given glory to God; both were
beautiful and hopeful. Encouragement for when our efforts pay off; and for when
they tragically fail....
And actually, although there were those who made it to the stable; or who
encountered Jesus and whose lives were changed, there were thousands in First
Century Palestine and Rome and throughout the World who never got to met Jesus
in person, but were involved in the Works of God in plenty of other ways.
I was chatting over all this, the other day, with Kieran a guy who had a colourful
past. Lots of time spent in one prison or another, and a horrifically painful, abusive
childhood. He gave me permission to share a little of his story tonight. The legacy of
his facial gang tattoos (and, actually, over most of the rest of his body), has proven
to be one of a collection of obstacles every time he's tried to start again. He's kept
pushing the straw in the gap, to build a safe place, raise a family; make a home, and
it's kept on falling out the other side. En route, things have just kept on going
wrong. He's turned to the church from time to time for help, has had some pretty
awful stuff said to him by Christians, and he's sometimes answered back, with
feeling, leading to things like trespass notices and arrests.
He spotted a ridiculously trivial article in the paper a couple of weeks back about
this priest who also had some tattoos, and he took a leap of faith, texted him, and
the rest is history. He found that the people he met when he came to Taranaki
Cathedral, welcomed him across this threshold with open arms and he was made to
feel comfortable and accepted. The warmth and love of this amazing fellowship of
people (YOU!); their Christlike acceptance has begun a work of healing in him, to
the glory of God.
It does make you stop and think about the random collection of characters in the
Nativity scene; shepherds; teenaged Mum, betrothedbutnotmarried partner.
Possibly even a little drummer boy, if that bizarre song is anything to go by! Would
Kieran have fitted in there? Been made welcome? I think he would have felt at
home. The radical message of the Word Made Flesh was that Jesus, even as a
newborn, was given to hanging out with the kind of people whose lives weren't that
need and tidy. Messy people. Disorderly people. Folks who weren't right in the eyes
of the law, who were creating something beautiful, perhaps, in the wilderness of
their lives, but there were casualties along the way of their life's journey, and a huge
heap of messy hay had ended up on the floor.
Keiran's wasn't the only such contact. To my amazement, there were plenty of
others, with stigmas of one kind or another. In each case, they had a story to tell of
how, due to their culture, background or life circumstances, they had known what it
was to be excluded from feeling at home, welcome, safe or redeemed in the midst of
the faith community. Sometimes admittedly that was their perception, and
sometimes by experience. Whereas of course; church is a community of the broken;
led by the broken – yet it is also a community of the redeemed and the loving and
the welcoming; and those prepared to stand up for social justice; to speak for those
who have no voice. Where the refugee and the homeless have a place. And that is
why the stable was the nestingplace for Jesus Christ, rather than the palace.
So what can you you or I take away from this?
This Saturday, on Boxing Day, the cathedral will be open to enable people to regift
presents, or to bring in a gift of their own, to bless a person or family in need in our
community. Consider dropping something in; we're here from 103pm.
Look at this painting of the Nativity. The artist, Atonio Cantone, said, “"The first to
arrive when Jesus was born were ordinary people, that is the core of the message I
wanted." We can't make out the faces of the crowd. Imagine that you are one of
them. Imagine yourself included at the crib. There is space there, for you.
Indeed, the scene is improved; beautified – gives still more glory to God by your
presence at there. So persist in the Works of God, wherever the Holy Spirit guides
you; keep pushing the straw in even when it is falling through; remembering that
Almighty God sanctified a heap of hay when His only Son was laid upon it as a