Away from the manger

End-of-the-year tasks can pull Christian leaders’ attention away from what really matters during the Christmas season. But Mark Ralls finds that even when he is not attentive, God still comes.

An old folk tale that goes all the way back to the second century imagines what the moment of Christ’s birth was like for Joseph. In this story, Joseph is not by Mary’s side. He has left the manger in search of a midwife -- someone to help with the impending birth. Approaching a nearby village, Joseph has an eerie experience.

Joseph sees a shepherd in the field. The shepherd is dipping a piece of bread into a clay pot. The shepherd’s hand is stilled -- for just an instant -- the bread suspended before his mouth. Above Joseph -- the same instant -- a bird stalls, its wings momentarily frozen in flight. The night breeze, brisk against his face, evaporates. All of this seems to happen at once, in what Madeleine L’Engle called “a wrinkle in time.” Everything is still. The next instant the world around Joseph returns to regular motions. The shepherd chews his bread. The bird flies away. The wind picks up again.

Joseph is not quite sure what, if anything, has happened. Then it dawns on him. Mary’s child -- the Son of God -- was born. And in that instant everything grew still.

As a pastor and Christian leader, I appreciate this old tale as a story of grace. Joseph is not where he is supposed to be. He has departed from the center of God’s miraculous activity. He is away from the manger. And still God comes to him. God speaks. God touches him in a single moment of stillness.

This holy time of year, I’m often not where I am supposed to be. I drift to concerns that are certainly less central than incarnation yet somehow feel more pressing. The stewardship campaign. The nomination of new church leaders. The unwritten Christmas Eve homily.

Like Joseph, I can’t sit still. I need something to do. And, at this time of year, there is always something that needs attention. Like Joseph, I may have solid intentions, but I’m not where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes -- I’m ashamed to admit -- Christmas comes and goes and I realize I wasn’t really there. In my heart, I was still fiddling with my end-of-the-year pastoral checklist. Like Joseph, I was away from the manger.

Some years, it is not until the final chorus of “Silent Night” dissolves into our candlelit sanctuary stones. Sometimes, it’s not until our services are finally over and I’m alone in the car. A stoplight stills me along the empty streets of early Christmas morning. Some years, it is not until the next day, after the nervous energy has worn down. I awake from a Christmas-day nap. Everything is still and I feel -- finally -- that wrinkle in time. God comes as God did for wayward Joseph. I haven’t been where I’m supposed to be, but still God comes.

In earlier days, Christian spirituality spoke of the power of attachment. Derived from harsh roots meaning “staked” or “nailed to,” our attachments bring both opportunity and danger. If I attach my attentions to God in Christ -- if I stake my claim there -- my life takes a certain shape. If I attach myself to other things, I become something different from what I was created to be. Could it be that I have allowed myself to become so attached to my role as a Christian leader that I drift away from my identity as a follower of Jesus Christ?

It never fails. At the close of every year I am shocked by the recognition of the hold my attachments have on me. Like Joseph, I drift away from the one thing that should have captured my attention. And yet, every Christmas, God still comes. I think that’s grace. Even when we are away from the manger, God still comes for us.