By Alan Bean
This reflection was written in 2017 for a service honoring the families of hospice patients.
If you have seen Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, it’s hard to hear Luke’s Christmas story without thinking of the “baby Jesus grace.” Ricky Bobby is a driver, not a thinker, and it shows.
“Dear lord baby Jesus,” Ricky Bobby prays, “We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox. Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists pawing at the air ….”
Ricky’s wife, Carley, just has to interrupt: “Hey, um, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him, ‘baby.’ It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”
Ricky is undaunted “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace,” he says. “When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”
Then the true nature of Carley’s concern bubbles to the surface.
“You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow.”
So, sensitive to his wife’s heartfelt concern, Ricky Bobby cuts to the chase. “Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars that I have accrued over this past season.”
Although we’re not as obvious about it as Ricky Bobby, we are all tempted to create God in our own image. And it is frighteningly easy to do. Especially if Walker and Texas Ranger are still too young to get into serious trouble, your wife maintains her “stone-cold fox” status, and you are racking up wins and rewards.
But when the bottom falls out, our ersatz gods just make us miserable, and only the real God can help. This is particularly true when, (to quote blues legend Taj Mahal) “it’s late in the evening and old man death come sneakin’ round your door.”
When you build your life around another person (a husband, a wife, a child, a parent) and that person dies a slow, humiliating death, the God question cannot be avoided.
We ask why a loving God would allow a good person to suffer like that. We ask why God would take from us the one person we can’t imagine living without.
Unable to answer these hard questions, some people give up on God. Genuine atheism is rare. We don’t stop believing in God, we just stop praying, trusting and hoping. The mere mention of religion makes us feel conflicted and uncomfortable.
And some of us become angry with God. We think about him all the time, but hardly in a positive or productive way. We believe God has revealed himself to be unjust and we want to hold him accountable. If God is so loving, why does he take our loved ones from us? We want answers.
No one lives forever. We know that. If people pass peacefully, contented and full of years, we’ve got no arguments. But why does the dying have to be so hard? And why do so many die before their time?
We don’t usually ask these questions in public. Someone might be offended or, worse still, try to defend the ways of the Almighty. We might not even allow our questions to enter the realm of conscious thought. But God becomes a burden to us, not a comfort. Not only have we lost a person who was more precious to us than life itself, we have lost our God. We have lost our hope.
We hear tales of miraculous healing or about people escaping disaster thanks to divine providence. These stories once filled us with hope. Now we just ask why, in our case, God fumbled the ball.
Some tell of the glories God has in store for the faithful on the other side of death or at the end of time. But when you find yourself in the clutches of grief, the past and the future don’t matter — you want help now. You want answers now.
The books of Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, place little Alice in worlds where logic breaks down, everyone talks nonsense, and no amount of explaining ever helps. In one scene the White Queen considers making Alice a personal assistant and promises to give her “two pence a week, and jam every other day.” A curious conversation ensues:
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire me — and I don’t care for jam.”
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if today if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday — but never jam today.”
When you’re grieving, you’re not interested in jam yesterday or jam tomorrow; you want some jam today.
The people of ancient Israel sometimes felt like characters in a Lewis Carroll storybook. Their scriptures were awash in tales of miraculous deliverance in days of yore and studded with promises of salvation to come, but the present moment offered nothing but the same old oppression and despair.
Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today.
Caesar Augustus, a Roman emperor who sells himself as a god, snaps his fingers and, hundreds of miles away in the random village of Nazareth, a carpenter named Joseph and his very pregnant wife, Mary, pack up the donkey and head south. They have no choice. In this world, it seems, Caesar calls the shots.
And then God inserts himself right into the middle of this miserable tale, but in a way no one could have expected.
And while they were there, the time came for Mary to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Objectively considered, this is a scene of abject misery. The same old depression and despair God’s people have come to expect. But from the perspective of heaven, as certain poor shepherds are about to discover, this particular revelation of spectacle comes with breathtaking implications.
Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people;
for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.
The angel isn’t talking about jam yesterday or jam tomorrow, it’s all happening “this day,” just over the hill, in your own back yard.
And this shall be a sign unto you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
What is a manger, exactly? A feed trough for cows, sheep and goats. The French word for eating, manger, has the same spelling as the English word “manger.” This is the language of scandal and humiliation, but these angels we have heard on high transpose this desperate scene into the key of glory. It is glorious because the angels say it is glorious and, we are just desperate enough to believe them.
Swaddling clothes were thin strips of cloth that were wrapped around and around a baby so tightly that the infant’s legs were held together while it’s arms were pressed to its body. Whatever Ricky Bobby might think, the baby Jesus had no “golden-fleece diapers” and his “tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists” were not “pawing at the air.”
The God who became flesh wasn’t just laid to rest in a cow’s feeding trough; he was wrapped so tight in his swaddling clothes he literally could not move a muscle.
For Luke, this image of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is so significant it is repeated three times.
First we see Mary wrapping her baby in swaddling clothes and laying the child in the dirty hay of a manger. No angels. No glory. Just cold and dark and the sinus-clearing stench of fresh manure.
The glory is reserved for shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night. “We have good tidings of great joy for everybody,” the angels declare. “And here’s what to look for: a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
So the shepherds go with haste and find Joseph and Mary, and the babe lying in a manger.
“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
What, exactly, had they seen? No glory shining around this cattle stall. No angel choir singing the Hallelujah chorus overhead. The sight is glorious because the angels declared it to be so — and they see with the eyes of heaven. God works no miracle, bring no warmth, no light, no food and no drink.
Bound tight in his swaddling clothes, this God-baby has nothing to offer but his mere presence. But if you have heard the angels sing, that’s enough.
Maybe Walker and Texas Ranger are still too young to get into real trouble and Carley still rates as a stone-cold fox, and this baby in the manger, shivering in the world’s darkest night, hardly warrants a second look. But if our world has gone dark, this God wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger might be just the thing. Not what we’re looking for, of course; but precisely what we need.
We don’t get the answers we demand — we get Emmanuel, “God with us.” A God who understands, who’s been there, who gets us, who feels us, who is for us, a God who pitches his tent right where it hurts the most and refuses to leave.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her king.