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Burlap, Boys, and Christmasby Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Angels are clean. Angels are beautiful. They seem almost otherworldly, since girl angels always seem to know their parts better than do boy shepherds. The angelic satin stuff goes pretty well in most Christmas pageants. The problems come with the burlap part.
Do you know what real-life shepherds were like? Townspeople looked down on them. "Herdsmen!" they'd huff derisively. Shepherds would work with sheep all day, sleep outside with the animals at night, and then come into town dirty, sweaty, and smelly. Like boys. Tradesmen in the marketplace would be polite enough. Shopkeepers would wait on them, but everybody was happy when they moved along. Burlap fits the part. It really does.
Angels get clouds and the Hallelujah Chorus for props. Shepherds get a stable. Maybe cattle lowing has a bit of romance. But conjure up the smells and the filth. No stainless steel dairy palace this, but a crude barn, with good reason for straw on the floor. Not exactly the setting you'd choose for a birth if you had the luxury of planning ahead.
But Mary and Joseph have no such luxury. They lumber into Bethlehem as the winter sun is making long afternoon shadows, bone tired after a four-day journey from Nazareth, wet with perspiration under the wool wraps that shield them against the chill wind. No cellular phones to call ahead for a reservation or wangle an invitation from some distant relative. Just overwhelming weariness.
"Innkeeper," says the taller boy playing Joseph, "do you have any vacancies? My wife is going into labor. We've got to find a place to stay the night out of this wind."
The innkeeper shakes his head.
"Nothing?" says Joseph, his voice husky. "We've got to find a place. Anyplace!"
The innkeeper gestures and mumbles something.
"A stable?" Joseph looks over at the Mary, whose robe is distended with padding to simulate pregnancy. Mary nods, but you can see the pain in her face.
And so the innkeeper leads the pair to the stable, moves a few things out of the corner and reaches for the coins Joseph gives him.
This isn't exactly picturesque and the pageant director is struggling as satin gives way to broken tools hanging from the walls. Large gaps under the stable door tease the wind into blowing tiny bits of straw into faces and hair.
Christmas plays always skip over the actual birth, so the next scene opens with scroungy shepherds peering in the door. The satin angel has told them to look for a newborn, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a feeding trough, so they have checked all the stables in town.
And here they find what they have sought: young couple, reclining exhausted in a barn, and a precious little baby, all wrapped up and lying in a manger, just as the angel said.
They push open the stable door to get a better look, and Joseph, hearing the squeak of dry hinges, stirs. "What do you want," he calls.
"The baby, we've come to see the baby," they reply, and then file one-by-one into the barn and kneel on the floor before the manger. The older shepherd removes his headdress in reverence, and other shepherds fumble to do the same.
In the silence and flickering light you can see tears of joy coursing down their cheeks. No Christmas pageant ever shows that part, but it happened, I'm sure.
"How did you know to come?" Joseph asks after a moment.
"Angels told us," is the reply. "They said that tonight in Bethlehem-town would be born a Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord."
"There was thousands ... millions of them angels," recites a young shepherd, whose mother spent all afternoon coaching him on his single line.
Angels seem appropriate to the birth of God's son. But straw and sweat and burlap do not. Why, I ask, would the Son of God Most High enter life amidst the rubble of human existence, at the lowest rung of society, in obscurity and at the stable-edge of rejection even before he is born?
And as hard as I think about it, I come back to one truth. God wanted to make it explicitly clear that He came to save each of us. He comes to the slimy, dark corners of our existence, the desperateness, the loneliness, the rejection, the pain. He comes to unswept barns and cold nights of despair. He comes because he understands them. He knows them intimately and came for the very purpose of delivering us from those raw stables to real Life.
Life that angels proclaim and humans long for. To be loved, actually loved by God in spite of ourselves. God reaches out to us in our misery, not just at an occasional moment of high spirituality. God, who sees us at our worst, offers us His best.
Curtains close, and the crowd stands and applauds. Backstage, Sally is removing her white satin costume while Billy yanks off his headdress and burlap as fast as he can.
"Don't tear it," says the harried pageant director. "We'll need it next year."
Yes, you will need that burlap again, for without it the watchers may just miss the true lesson of Christmas.
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