If you were to walk through the narrative of the Nativity story, you’d know it pretty well, right? That’s not a trick question, because I agree, we all know it very well. But what if the reason why we know it so well isn’t just because we’ve heard it year in, year out since we were babies? What if it was for another, deeper reason?
What if each of the main players of the Nativity story magnified certain characteristics of our heart? What if in the Nativity story, we found ourselves at our deepest level, in the hearts of those we read about?
When I approach each one of the main characters from the Christmas story, I see that they correspond directly to something in my heart. I think that’s the same for all of us. They were ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations. How they responded shows us the truth of their hearts, and it shows us ours, too.
To explain this, I’m going to approach the stable from the outside in, counting down through seven people of the Nativity story who have taught me something deep about myself.
Herod is the part of me that does not want another king, that does not want to bow down before anything else that is not myself. This part of me is completely ruled by my fear, the fear that I am not enough. This fear distills itself into pride, to prove that I am enough by myself, rather than enough when completed by Christ. Herod is the part of me that will defend my own kingdom no matter the cost, (Matt 2:16) the part of me that ignores the desire of my heart to worship the God who created me, and instead turns to other idols and addictions to appease my ego. It is the part of me that despises the call to “be like little children”. It is the part of me that wants power, unchecked.
Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:3) tells us that “the whole of Jerusalem”- not just Herod- was perturbed by the news that there was to be an infant King of the Jews. Herod gathered chief priests and the scribes of the people around him. They were able to tell him exactly of the prophecy of the leader of Judah. They had knowledge of God and of the child that would be born. But where were they when Herod commanded all boys aged two and under to be massacred? Did they try to stay his hand? Herod’s advisors are the part of my heart that has knowledge of God, but does not follow that up with love, simply ignoring it, or worse still, lets evil reign. It is the part of my heart that is completely ruled by fear, and does nothing to abate others’ suffering or fear. Perhaps that is why Jesus tells us so many times in the Gospels to “be not afraid”, because He knows how much sin stems from fear.
When I think of the Three Kings, sometimes called the Wise Men, of the gospels and tradition, I think of a rich sense of adventure. These men and their journey are the part of my heart that knows I am made for more and that yearns for an adventure to find that.
Though they were strangers from a far off unnamed land, they were not content until they had followed their deepest longings to find the infant king of the Jews (Matt 2:2). How far beyond themselves they must have gone! Beyond their own countries, their own cultures, presumably their own religion. But something in them was stirred and they could not ignore it. How often do we feel an awakening in our hearts, an unquenchable desire for more, for something beyond us? We know that we are made for more than what we have- this is why we keep searching for more in ourselves. As C.S Lewis wrote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” (From Mere Christianity)
The Wise Men recognised this, and we recognise it in ourselves, in the desires of our heart that cannot fully be quenched. Indeed, the meaning of the verb “desire” relates to the stars themselves. Like the Wise Men, we will follow that star, that desire, where ever it takes us. Perhaps too the Wise Men represent the true moments of joy in our lives, the times when we recognise how close God is to us, when God takes us on an adventure beyond our wildest dreams, when God shows us what we are longing for, and allows us to kneel close before Him.
Perhaps this element of our hearts can best be summed up by Pope John Paul’s beautiful quote from World Youth Day 2000:
If the Three Kings are the rich, high-spirited sense of adventure in my heart, then the shepherds are the poorer side of that desire. The shepherds represent the poverty of my heart. “In the countryside close by there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night”. (Luke 2:8). Let us consider again who the shepherds were. Most likely poor, perhaps not able to feed their children, slave to the drudgery of whatever work they could find. They lived in a land occupied by a brutal, hostile conqueror. Their beliefs and customs were barely tolerated. They were an oppressed people, no stranger to violence and injustice and the rigours of the natural and animal world that they watched over. No strangers to the night, to shadowy dealings in the darkness.
Yet at the same time, they knew how to care, how to go after the lost lamb, how to keep their flock together, and safe from the prey that would be out to kill their sheep. The shepherds were the ones that “hurried” to the manger after the angels had visited them. They were the ones to tell Mary and Joseph what they had heard about the saviour that had been born, “astonishing” everyone who heard them with what they had to say. Truly, they were the epitome of the Beatitudes: the meek who inherit the earth, the ones that hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The shepherds are the part of me that recognises my poverty, that my heart is occupied by sin, that I can be a slave to the brutality of other’s sin that trespasses on the sacred land of my heart. It is the part of me that longs to return home, to receive the grace that calls me out of the shadows of the night and into the warmth of the stable. It is the part of me that throws down all I have (not much), that takes up my best self, my desires, all the times I try so hard to do what is right. It is the part of me that takes a chance on hope, that hurries out into the night to search for my God. It is the part of me that knows and trusts that God can fill up my emptiness with something the world cannot give. It is the part of me that knows, eventually, my poverty does not matter: the joy of meeting God is a richness beyond anything I could ever hope to possess.
I think the worst times in life are the times when something so terrible has happened that it feels as though the earth has been ripped from beneath you and the map of your life (which you could see so clearly ahead of you) has been torn up. It is a disorientating place to be, besides whatever other suffering you may be experiencing. I wonder if this is how Joseph felt when he heard the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Reassurances from an angel aside, courage and strength was required for probably longer than we give St Joseph credit for. Perhaps it was a daily learning to re-calibrate his will to the will of the Father.
Joseph is the part of my heart that says yes, God, I will trust in You, and I will take on what is not my own, and I will exercise true love in putting what is best for the other person above what I want. Joseph is the part of my heart that accepts that God’s plan is better than my own, the part of my heart that acknowledges that even when I feel like a stranger in my own life, I can still trust that God has my life in His caring hands.
Joseph is the part of my heart that does what is right, simply because it is right, but that exercises that rightness with love and care. He is the part of my heart that is foster-parent to the plans of my life that come from God and not from me, but which I do not bulk from, knowing that fear is not of God and that I do not need to be afraid of what God’s gives me.
Mary is the part of me that sits in peace before the Father, knowing that I don’t need to hide anything before Him. She is the part of my heart that is openly trusts in God, knowing that He is good and that whatever He asks of me is good. She is the part of my heart that knows God is God and I am not. But she is also the part of my heart that knows I am not defined by that “not”. She is the part of my heart that knows I am defined by my place as a son or daughter of the King, that I am “clothed with strength and dignity” (Proverbs 31:25) and that all my actions and choices in life come through that definition.
She is the part of my heart that knows God’s gift of free will, and she is the part of my heart that knows that in trustful obedience we discover our true selves and true happiness.
Each of these characters, in varying different ways and depths, had direct encounters with the child in the manger. Gathered around Him at the stable, He poses us the biggest challenge of our lives: dare we get to know Him, dare we respond to who He is? Dare we listen to His calling in the quietest chambers of our heart, where nothing else dares to tread? Most of all, dare we still ourselves enough to sit in His presence and feel His peace?
We are all asked this. Each character had their own free will to choose how they would respond. We are not called to chop ourselves up to get through the narrow door of the stable. We are merely asked to lay our baggage down outside. There is room for each one of our characters, whether we respond with the zeal of high adventure, or the haphazard exhausted scrabble of one who makes it just in time. There is room for us whether we cast our crowns down from the moment we first hear of Him, or whether we fling them off as we catch His mother’s eye as we approach her Child. The important thing is to come to the manager with an open heart. God will do the rest.
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