I once sang in a carol concert where the soloist in ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ managed to get his words mixed up to great comic effect. Instead of singing, ‘Enough for him whom cherubim worship night and day, a breastful of milk and a manger full of hay,’ he sang, ‘Enough for him whom cherubim worship day and night, a breastful of milk and a manger full of…’ Halfway through the line the rest of the choir cottoned on to the obvious rhyme and dissolved into fits of poorly-subdued laughter. Every year when I sing that carol I have to restrain myself from belting out, ‘Maaanger fuuuull of sh––…’ with an enormous grin on my face.
A manger full of shite. We all have one, and this is partly why the emphasis in Advent falls on preparation: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord’, ‘Stay awake’, ‘Make ready’, ‘Prepare him room’. Although we know Jesus will be born among animals, we want the stable of our lives to be as nice and fragrant as we can possibly make it. But the image of the place we so want to prepare for Jesus, and the stable we picture for ourselves on Christmas cards (complete with telltale warm glow, reverent and attentive beasts, quaintly rustic but not-too-authentic shepherds and so on) can mean that we miss the real thing, and the real birth that happens in the unsanitary conditions of our real lives.
Among the novels I read this year was Shusaku Endo’s Silence. I’ve heard many different reactions to the novel’s ending, some understanding, some bewildered and some disappointed. But as the final pages unfolded –the scene with Rodrigues and the fumi-e, the discovery of the fate of Ferreira– one thought emerged, and stayed with me: ‘How small God makes himself.’ God, it turns out, is small enough to conceal himself in the ruins of heroism, small enough to conceal himself in shame, and in very ordinary humiliation.
I found myself thinking about that again this morning: how small God makes himself, and how much humility God has, to be born in our humiliation. Faced with our failure to make much progress in tidying ourselves up, our response is usually to shut the door on God, rather than to accept our own humiliation and God’s unbearably merciful presence in it. We all have an inner innkeeper, who would rather say, ‘No room!’ than invite God in to our manger full of shite.
We easily lose sight of the fact that Jesus chooses to be born not in the palace of our strength, but in the stable of our weakness. So what if, faced with suffering, humiliation, pain, our own sinful mess, we allowed that to be the stable? What if these ‘mangers full of shite’ became places in ourselves that we approached with tenderness? God is a lot humbler than we are, and makes himself small enough to be born there, if we are humble enough to let him.