by Rev. J. Vance Eastridge, Jan. 7, 2000
Joseph fried eggs in a skillet over a fire of smoldering wood coals while in the shadows Mary nursed Jesus as she leaned against a pile of straw.
A friend invited us to his home for an Epiphany party. It was an opportunity to show off his collection of crèches and to bring the season of Christmas to a close. There were crèches scattered everywhere throughout his spacious home. Not one was of the department-store variety. Each was unique in origin as well as design. Each was styled to the culture from which it came.
On our arrival, our host led us immediately to his latest and, for the moment, his proudest acquisition. The figures had been crafted in the Ozarks. Each traditional figures of the nativity stay was present. Sheltered by the stable, Mary was depicted as lying back against a wall of hay, cradling the new-born baby Jesus in her arms. Just outside the stable, Joseph had built a fire and was cooking breakfast.
I wanted to shout, "That's it! That's the way it was."
We have a variety of creches in our home. Our most exquisite is made by Lenox of the finest white porcelain. Each figure is meticulously detailed. Then, there is the polished mahogany stable which shelters delicately colored figures by Lladro. My favorite emerges from my deep love of fine crystal. The figure of Joseph towers about twelve inches over a sitting Mary, leaning over the baby Jesus in a manger. The figures are pristine in their flawless flow of Austrian lead crystal. We have others as well, and each of them is a classic portrayal. Each set is artistically created without a blemish.
But, that's not how it was.
Two thousand years ago, an exhausted Mary rested heavily from her labor. Joseph, weary and hungry from the night's ordeal, prepared a meal for his wife and for himself. Nothing polished and unblemished here. The stable was rough-hewn and splintery. The stable floor was strewn with hay. Animals who shared the stable had briar-matted tails and mud-caked hooves. The shepherds who watched awestruck smelled of stale sweat from hillside living. Everything reflected the commonplace.
The first crèche ever was the handiwork of St. Francis of Assisi shortly after the first millennium. His crèche was comprised of live animals and fellow friars who represented the company of the first nativity. St. Francis had taken a vow of poverty and all his companions had wedded "Lady Poverty" with him. It goes without saying that his creche greatly duplicated the original. St. Francis would know. No one living since that birth-night has more nearly captured the essence of Jesus in his own life than did St. Francis. Renouncing his family's wealth, St. Francis lived in caves and rude shelters on the plains of Assisi. He wore only a simple gardener's cloak, frayed and rough, which in time would become the apparel of his Franciscan order. He begged for food in return for labor. He fed and bathed the lepers, and in the end, bore the stigmata of his crucified Lord.
Heaven is perfection. There is no blemish there. There is no poverty there. There is no leprosy there. But earth is not heaven. Though created to be perfect, the descendants of Eden have polluted their minds and bodies, along with the skies and flowing streams. They have scarred the hills and poisoned the forests. They have allowed the lesser-fortunate descendants of Eden to live in the stench of poverty and ignorance and to battle disease and discrimination. It was in this world that the son of God first breathed the air of humanity. If he had set himself apart from the sores of humanity he would not have been able to blend into the places that he came to cure and cleanse.
A visitor to a remote medical mission in equatorial Africa was shocked to see that the missionary doctor used only the village huts and primitive furnishings for his hospital. On being questioned why the hospital was not modern and antiseptic, the sainted doctor answered, "If it were, the natives would not come to be treated. They would only come to the place where they would feel at home and comfortable, a place that was part of them."
So it was with Jesus. Spurning a Jerusalem palace, a Pharisaical community, and an ornate temple, he came to the stables where the people were sick and lonely and lost. He did not come to stay with them there, but to lead them out. That is where his journey on earth began. That is where his journey begins today, two thousand years later.
Most of our church denominations have their roots in the lowest social estate, among the neediest and most deprived, just as the first generation church was primarily made up of slaves and the poor. As new birth in Christ brought converts out of their poverty and ignorance, they carried the church with them into middle-class living, and the churches left the briar patches for the suburbs. As each denomination uprooted itself from its place of beginning, new sect churches sprang up in the wastelands left behind.
So, it is appropriate that periodically we remind ourselves that our spiritual ancestry leads us back to a stable where the nativity feast was not roast pig with an apple in its mouth, mince-meat pies, cups of wassail and egg-nog, but fried eggs, pan-baked bread and goats milk ... in a briar patch.