Strangers & Mangers

O Thou, whose glorious yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beats be not thou a stranger.

This stanza, from George Herbert’s 16th century poem Christmas, is shot through with language and images we still associate with the season today: light and darkness, sovereignty and incarnation, lordship and humility. What emerges is a sense of contrast. A light shining in the darkness; a monarch in a manger. That sense of contrast shows us something of the poet’s understanding of God’s character. For Herbert God is “glorious yet contracted”, the rightful possessor of his “dark soul and brutish” but not brutish himself. The invitational tone in “be thou not a stranger” gives special insight into his grasp of God’s modus operandi. Herbert’s God isn’t beastly or glaring, but mysteriously steals into the world wrapped in “night’s mantle”, patiently waiting to be welcomed further in by his creation. Totally sovereign, totally dedicated, totally unwilling to impose.

That contrasting picture might bring the odd carol to mind. “Jesus, Lord at thy birth”, says Silent Night, about an arrival that looks anything but stately. Reflecting further on a story filled with crowded inns, preoccupied empires and paranoid puppet kings, Joy to the World implores: “Let every heart prepare him room.” The third verse of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter draws out this contrast so vividly it’s often omitted when the carol is sung today:

Enough for him, whom cherubim worship night and day,
A breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for him whom angels fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

These sorts of carols and poems share one of the most moving and haunting truths of Christmas: Through Jesus, God belongs to humanity; but humanity can choose whether or not to belong to God, even though we’re God’s to begin with. Jesus is in our hands, and we can respond like Mary or like Herod. We can welcome God, or not.

So Christmas offers up a question. Not a question about who God is or what God’s like – that’s meant to be clear through Christ’s arrival – but a question about who we are and what we’re like. In one sense, the question which emerges from the Christmas story asks: if God hasn’t been a stranger to me, will I remain a stranger to God?

Have I been a stranger to God? That’s a searching question to ask at Christmas. If God is the kind of God who is present but unwilling to impose, what does it mean to be open, to look, to be attentive to such a being at our very elbow, awaiting our invitation? What does it mean to welcome God?

Two thoughts about welcoming God and Christmas:

First, if Christmas tells anything it’s that God is ready to embrace us if we’re willing to embrace God. If we’re worried about the kind of state our house is in, anxious about playing host to God in our “dark souls”, then perhaps the manger is a good place to start. I’d suggest the manger reminds us that God doesn’t need us to clean or straighten up before welcoming him in. God’s not fussy like that; real love isn’t conditional. Welcoming God is about following his vulnerable lead. No matter how dark, how untidy, how downright unworthy we might believe ourselves to be, Christmas tells us that God wants to move in, but it will take an invitation, because love doesn’t impose. If it did it wouldn’t be love. So welcoming God has to do with being open and attentive in everyday life – that’s all God’s looking for. We might start by praying. If prayer is an alien idea it needn’t frighten us off. Prayer is simply conversation with God, and conversation, as we know, can be deep, or difficult, or simple, or lighthearted. The point is just to get talking, just get listening. Half the point of prayer is showing up – it’s surprising just how much good that can do. Christmas is a wonderful time to start praying; to start thanking God for life; to start asking for God’s help; to start listening to what God might be saying.

Secondly, if we’re at all to take Jesus seriously, welcoming God must also have something to do with welcoming others. Christmas says that God has not forgotten the downtrodden and despised but has identified and associated with them. Christmas says that God has regarded the disregarded, and so should we. So being open to God, somehow, has to be about being open to others. You can’t have one without the other, says Jesus. However we go about remembering those who are easily forgotten, be they family, friends or otherwise estranged people, opening up to God always has something to do with opening up to one another. So as we open gifts and doors over the next few days, let us also open our hearts to people we’ve otherwise shut out. Let’s forgive; let’s pause to speak with the ignored; let’s volunteer our time in the coming New Year to help welcome people no one else is welcoming through the good work of a local charity.

So today of all days – Christmas Day – let our prayer reflect George Herbert’s, but go a step further:

Oh God, let’s not be strangers; and let me not be a stranger to others. I want to welcome you with an open heart, and I want welcome those around me. Give me the grace for both. Amen.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.