Sunday, December 28, 2008

Away in a Manger


Truth be told, it hasn't seemed all that much like Christmas this year.

It's not just about being far away from home; I was in Europe during Advent and Christmas of 1977, and it felt plenty enough like Christmas then. (Of course, I *did* go to midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica -- the last Christmas Eve midnight Mass that Pope Paul VI would celebrate, as it turns out.)

It probably doesn't matter exactly what is going on. There's no use getting into analysis paralysis over it; it's not really a problem. Just a statement of fact. All the Christmas paraphernalia which had been up for a week in our office, was taken down yesterday, too. (Guess that's another difference between liturgical and non-liturgical types!)

We had decorated our office for Christmas, replete with gold lamé wrapping paper completely covering the door, cheesy 1970s garland for accent, and really, really annoying 'singing' Christmas cards taped onto the wrapping paper. Every time someone moved past them, we were treated to (exposed to? subjected to? tortured with?) dogs barking Jingle Bells, some baritone tinnily crooning Silent Night, and a soprano warbling I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.

It was a veritable cacophony of vituperation, almost constantly. We have a lot of visitors, especially since we've been putting out all the goodies we've been receiving from you good folks. Thanks! Seriously.

That being said, I love hearing and singing Christmas carols, and perhaps part of what's been going on for me is that I'm in the midst of the most musically challenged individuals I've ever encountered. It's quite remarkable, actually.

Funny thing, though, is that while it can be disconcerting during Mass, I'm nevertheless chuffed (as my friend Stan would put it) that they're at least making the effort, and thus making a joyful noise unto the Lord. It's joyful, all right! Today at Mass it was *very* loud, too. They were just praising the Lord as best they could, and that was great.

A bit messy, but no more so than the Incarnation itself. Or the Nativity.

Which brings me back to the original musing behind this post: Away in a manger, no crib for a bed... Jesus was quite literally born in a barn!

Every Christmas crèche I've ever seen has been sterile at best, if not coldly beautiful. Sure, there are animals, but none has any real character. There certainly are no cows or bulls with bovine or taurine "issues." No goats with bad attitudes. Very vanilla.

There certainly are no barnyard smells going on.

Very antiseptic.

We seem to forget the barnyard smells when we think of the Nativity. We forget the bloodiness of the process, the pain. We sanitize everything for our psychic protection, it seems. We want Jesus to be Lord and Savior, but not truly one of us, because that would just be too "unseemly," wouldn't it?

In our visual (and other) representations of the Nativity, we appear to ignore what's written in the Letter to the Hebrews: "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect..." (NRSV: Heb 2:17) We forget where Jesus really was born, and all the unpleasant implications thereof.

The Incarnation and Nativity are messy, earthy, human. Jesus *was* born in a barn!

(You can bet his Mom only used a certain line only once after Jesus left the house door open the first time when he was a child. Talk about embarrassing!)

Let's face it: Do you believe Jesus had dirty, stinky diapers, or don't you?

I've been particularly aware of that kind of messiness of the human condition since I've been going around to various outposts that are pretty far away from the conveniences and comforts that we enjoy where I live. If you've ever seen the movie Jarhead, for example, you might remember scenes in which the Marines have to tend the burn barrels.

Nasty business, that burning, because of the business they're burning. And it's one hundred and eleventy-seven degrees Fahrenheit while they're doing it, to boot!

I've been to a combat outpost a couple of times now at which the Soldiers need to use burn barrels, because there's no other way for them to dispose of their business. It's an experience, let me tell you. Makes me very glad to get home, even if it's taken six or seven or eight hours to get there.

The Soldiers I visit at that place live like that 24/7, as they say these days. The fires burn around the clock. Everyone is very aware of wind velocity and direction there, especially during meal times.

Count your blessings.

Recently I've visited another post a couple of times where they don't have to burn, but they do have to bag. Literally.

Think of urban dog owners and their rituals.

Now, it's not a matter of picking it up afterward, but it is a matter of using a plastic bag in the first place, and then placing that bag in a another, ziploc, bag. (They're called "wag bags.") Everything then goes into the trash, and someone has to bury that.

Too much information? Well, an informed electorate is a wise electorate. Or something.

Very earthy.

The Soldiers living at that post live there 24/7. But at least they don't have to burn....

I suspect some folks are pretty offended now, having read this far. "How *dare* he! What a breach of etiquette! How *could* he get from Christmas carols to *this*? The nerve! The impudence! The irreverence!!!"

Be honest.

If that's your reaction, at least you've been paying attention.

Like the Christmas crèche that is so prettified we lose sight of the reality of the mess involved, this war has been so sanitized that Americans at the mall, or "supporting the troops" by typing furiously on keyboards in their parents' basements (when they could actually be over here in person), have no real sense of the sacrifices required and deprivations endured by military personnel at combat outposts over here -- on their behalf!

I know *I* was not aware of what goes on over here before I set boots on the ground and got outside the wire!

Count your blessings.

I know I do, every time I'm here on post and need to do "personal hygiene." (Great euphemism, eh?) Knowing how others wearing the same uniform as I do have to conduct their lives, while I've got it so easy here, is an immensely humbling thought. As irksome as it can be to have to journey out into the cold night to take care of business in the latrine trailer, at least there is a *trailer* that has real toilets!

And the greatest annoyance we have to put up with where I work is the fact that whoever designed the building did not include enough indoor plumbing to accommodate easily the number of people working here. There's often some, somewhat annoying, waiting involved. But at least it's indoors, and we have toilets that flush! Almost all the Soldiers I have to travel outside the wire to visit don't have the luxury of real toilets.

So, what's to complain about?

Of course, there is the problem of the Officer at work who outranks me by multiple pay grades, but doesn't know how to lift a toilet seat up before using the commode while standing up. He seems not to know how to wash the mess or his hands afterward, either. (I've witnessed this, firsthand, unfortunately.) {Shudders involuntarily.}

Thank God for Clorox disinfecting wet wipes! (I've taken to keeping them handy for just such an eventuality....)

Ah, the humanity of it all.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed....

Blessings and peace to one and all on this Third Day of Christmas,


Fr. Tim, SJ
 
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