Back in the early 1950’s another seminarian and I were sent from Rome to the Catholic canton of Fribourg in Switzerland to learn French. During our weeks there I was once invited by a local family to spend a weekend at a mountain chalet near the village of Plaffeien – in the kind of world we find described in the story Heidi: “open to every ray of the sunlight and with a wide view of the valley below.”
Now this chalet was not the picturesque kind you find in travel folders. It was a rough wooden building partitioned into a limited space for the family and, under the same roof, a barn for their goats, cows and chickens. I can still remember as I tried to sleep in the hayloft above the animals at night how I could hear the shuffling of hooves, the lowing of some cow, the smell of their hides – as if the straw I slept on was not enough to keep me awake.
There is an opinion that it was just such a building in which Jesus was born. In olden times (even as today in Switzerland) herdsmen housed their animals along with their feeding troughs (mangers) not in exterior sheds but inside the house, a mere wall separating them from the human quarters. This may be why one English version of Luke’s account says Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to lodge in the house.”
Is there any room in your soul for Christ to be born – or do you partition him and his mother off into some remote part of your being, far from the things you customarily dwell upon? Apparently the owner of the “chalet” where Christ sought entry was not ready or capable of taking him in – and so walled him off as if he were something less than human. We do that to a lot of people in our society (with whom the Christ of Christmas can identify). How much do you allow Christ to be a welcome guest within your living quarters, to illuminate the windows of your house for all to see?
In speaking of the lectionary readings for this Advent we dwelt upon the image of the Annunciation – suggesting that angels approach the quarters within which we confine ourselves (our cautionary abode) announcing Christ’s desire to “enter under our roof”. We mentioned the account about Joseph and how he was reluctant to receive him as he was conceived in Mary – but how he finally agreed and thus made of carpentry an immortal trade! We also mentioned Gabriel’s entry into Mary’s dwelling, asking her to take Christ within her womb. She too was astonished by the request but gave Christ the space to acquire a heartbeat within her and thanks to her within each of us.
How often does Gabriel come to you; how often does Christ seek shelter in this chaotic world within you as his means of reversing all that chaos? Most of the time he will come gently, quietly as at Christmas, most of the time in a thought, an insight. But he is not beyond coming violently, to sweep us off our feet. I mean he mentioned his having that option – as when in Mark’s Gospel he described himself as a housebreaker, as someone determined to break into every “strong man’s” house to tie him up (by way of miracle and word) and ransack all his goods. That’s how much he loves us – that if he can’t enter gently with the angel Gabriel as his herald, he may bowl you over, break down your door with the intensity, the relentlessness of his grace, his graciousness.