Originally posted Dec. 17, 2013, at Dancing with the Word. Republished with permission of the author.
I have friends who have done this for years — gathering in a barn on Christmas Eve — with bales of straw and battery operated candles and more people than room and a few animals to make it seem especially real. I’d thought about it in other years in other places, but existing worship schedules were already so full I never pursued it. Even this year, I came to it late.
So here is how it went. First, I raised it with a few staff members who were open to the idea. However, I needed to run it by leadership as well and given my poor timing, it didn’t come to our council agenda until November. When I floated the idea there, eyes started to sparkle almost immediately. Even at that late date, we decided to try.
So a couple of days later I was in conversation with Gerry, a farmer in our congregation. He would have gladly opened his own barn, but it was full of stuff and there was no way to get it ready on such short notice. He had another one in mind, but that one also didn’t work out. Even while Gerry kept asking around, I made a Sunday morning plea, and still nothing. By now it was getting late. I had just about given up, uncertain as to whether I should be relieved or disappointed. Then someone else had an idea and got on the phone. And a couple of days ago, several of us met Dean out at his barn.
It turns out it’s not so easy to find a barn anymore — not even here in farm country in northern Illinois. Apparently, barns aren’t used like they used to be and as a result, many are, by now, in disrepair. Or they’re used for storage. In addition, very few farmers have an assortment of animals anymore. However the barn that will shelter our service on Christmas Eve does — in stalls against the north wall are two goats, a pig, a couple of donkeys, and a rabbit in a cage — a petting zoo, it turns out, that is open when their seasonal pumpkin farm welcomes guests. It’s a smallish space, but we’re just trying this out this year and so it will probably be more than enough. Besides, I’m thinking the first shelter Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus knew wasn’t so very large either.
It was such fun to watch Dean, the owner of the barn, and Gerry, who has been in on this dream from the start, stand there in the cold and sort out what could be moved and what would be needed and how it might all come together. Dean wondered if he should clear out the cobwebs. “No,” we all agreed. “What about Christmas lights?” “Now that might be nice.” Gerry is going to bring in some extra straw bales for folks to sit on and he’s going to rig up a spot light for the manger. Dean is going to move out the hay rack and extra cages and tidy up a bit, but not too much. When his daughter is home from college, they’ll hang the Christmas lights together. We’ll find some folks who can direct traffic and bring the service, the people, the bread, the wine, the song. And the story we gather around, of course, is already ours to simply repeat with one another once again.
For all of the fun of this venture, this is what especially struck me in the middle of this journey to this point. In the midst of his asking around for a barn, Gerry had one person say to him, “Now why would you want to do Christmas in a barn? Jesus was born in a cave, don’t you know?”
Now that is probably so, I can’t argue with that. In fact, when you return to the story as Luke tells it, there is no mention of a stable or a barn. Only a manger — a feeding trough for animals — is mentioned. It would, of course, make sense that there was some kind of shelter that held the manger and thus Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but we are simply not told exactly what that was. And so while yes, we do want to encounter this story in as authentic a way as possible, we don’t have any caves around here anyway. And since most of us picture a stable in our own memories and imaginations and since, if Jesus, Immanuel, “God with us,” were to become incarnate in the same way again today, I’m thinking it would probably not happen in a cave or a stable or a barn at all. Well, I expect a barn is as good a place as any. As long as it leads us to wonder at the meaning of the story here and now. As long as it has us looking to encounter Jesus yet again and wondering where that just might be.
And so it is that I do find myself wondering just where this might happen today. If Jesus were to come again in human form, would it be like the last time? Would it be in a country far away or would it be in our own back yard? Would it be in an unused room at a nursing home? Or at a homeless shelter? Or under a city bridge? I do wonder where Jesus would be born today. Don’t you? And I wonder how my wondering changes how I encounter those who are in those places now. How does the possibility that those places are already made “holy” by the presence of the Christ Child change everything?
As you consider where Jesus might be born today, what possibilities come to mind? What elements or characteristics of the first Christmas story would you take into account as you think about this? How does it make a difference in terms of how you think about those who normally inhabit such places if you think that Jesus might just make his home there?