Anxiously Anticipating Jesus' Birth
What the Incarnation means for believers and nonbelievers alike
Many characteristics of Jesus’ physical entry into our world move me. Like all naturally birthed human babies, he was discharged in great pain by his human mother and emerged, as each of us once did, a humble mystery: purplish skin, scrunch-faced from the pressures of birth, and probably screaming upon his arrival from the pain and shock of it. He was a real baby born of a real woman, in a real place—although certainly humbler than most—a real stable somewhere, redolent of manure and the steamy breath of domesticated animals, a temporary home unwillingly proffered and shared with chattel and food sources, creatures even humbler than humans.
Every Christmas season my husband reads aloud from an anthology called Treasury of Christmas Stories. I look forward to a poem called “Secret in the Barn” by Anne Wood, even though it exasperates my daughters whenever my husband reads it aloud because I cry so much. In it, the speaker, a little girl named Louise, has asked for a horse for Christmas, and she can’t go to sleep on Christmas Eve because of her anticipation that she might really be getting one.
I love the live current of Louise’s impatience for that horse. The electric energy of longing and remembered promises. The exciting evidence—the snorting, champing horse noises out in the barn—that what she longs for and what she gets are about to coincide, as they so infrequently do, in the amazing mystery of Christmas. In some sense, Louise longs for what we all long for, even if we have never been interested in horses. Something warm, noisy, lovable, alive. Something that belongs entirely to us. Something so far beyond our deepest fantasies it seems the product of longing itself.
It embarrasses me to say it, but I look forward to “Secret in the Barn” more than I do a reading of the real Christmas story, even Linus’s rendition of it (although that too makes me cry).
In the retrospection of my faith, Wood’s poem brings home to me what the season really means more emphatically than the words of the prophecy-examining Matthew or the orderly doctor Luke or even Jesus’ best friend John. It is this: that the best of all worlds, what we hardly dare hope for in our ignorance and benightedness and impatience, really did happen. On a specific day in the past. Through the writhing exertions of a genuine woman who submitted to God’s weird plan. In a real barn in the real town of Bethlehem. Witnessed by a confused but faithful husband and real donkeys and cattle and dazed shepherds and incandescent angels. “Secret in the Barn” reminds me of what happened and continues to happen in every believer since that day: the incarnation of God in human flesh.
That, for me, is the secret in the barn: the event that even those who don’t yet know it to be true nevertheless long for, as ardently as Louise longs for her horse. The secret in the barn is what nonbelievers unwittingly anticipate and instinctively begin to celebrate long in advance of its scheduled anniversary. It positively delights me that even atheists, believers of other faiths, and retailers, ignorant or unconscious of or even antagonistic toward the reason for the season, can’t help but commemorate the birth of God’s Son in their parties and presents and candles in the window. They peer out into the darkness, searching, like little hopeful Louise, for the impossible evidence of something they can’t clearly see. And their hearts beat faster when they hear, or think they hear, that faint whinny of hope.
Maybe something’s really out there, they unknowingly yearn as they stuff another holly garland into the shopping cart or pencil through their lists of how happiness might be achieved this year. Smelling the scents of Douglas fir and gingerbread baking in the oven, of fresh manure and hay and blood, they must unconsciously recognize the promise evident in all creation—as Paul tells us they do in Romans—and they must long for it. And for one long moment, anticipated long in advance of propriety and good taste, they join in the celebration of those who already know the secret. “O come, all ye faithful,” they hum along in the aisles of Costco. In that moment, ecstatic as we all are then, we don’t even notice that they’re there among us, the hungry ones who still long for what we have already secured for ourselves.
Adapted from The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent by Patty Kirk. Copyright © 2012 by Patty Kirk. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com.