My friend Robert is a pastor who is also a professor. One year, when his class was talking about the Christmas story, he gave them a primer on shepherds and how they weren’t nearly as pristine as our nativity scenes would have us believe. They were the outcasts of society—dirty, smelly and more comfortable outside with the sheep than inside with the people.
One of the young women in the class, raised in an era of Purel in every classroom, asked, “Do you think the dirty, smelly shepherds got to hold the baby Jesus?”
Did they get to hold the baby Jesus? This question hit a little too close to home for me.
When our daughter was born, I was interning at a church in South Boston. Sandwiched between two housing projects, Fourth Presbyterian was a mixture of young up-and-coming professionals, the borderline homeless, people living with HIV and kids from the projects who came without their parents. It was a place where Alice, the first woman ordained into the PCUSA in the state of Massachusetts worshipped next to Jimbo, a home health aid who lived illegally in a condemned building. The congregation was filled with people of many different colors and backgrounds who came in varying degrees of cleanliness and mental health.
My husband and I were like all first time parents—completely clueless and trying our best to do right by this tiny human being those insane people at the hospital allowed us to bring home. Our efforts included making sure that everyone who held her had freshly washed hands and no visible signs of illness.
It came time to go back to church. We knew there was no way to shield her from the love and grimy hands and sometimes-alcohol-tinged breath of our congregation. So we just handed over our baby and said our prayers and tried to keep up with who was holding her as she was passed from person to person. The joy in the room smoothed over any anxiety I may have had. (My husband may tell this story differently.)
So my guess, is that, yes, the shepherds got to hold the Baby Jesus. Not because they were qualified childcare workers or because they had showered and sanitized before coming into the stable. Maybe it was because Mary and Joseph, like all new parents, had no idea what they were doing. Maybe it was because the shepherds showed up when aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents failed to. Or maybe, just maybe, just probably, it was because everyone gets to hold the baby Jesus. That’s the whole point. Jesus came for us all, even the sweatiest and smelliest among us.
This Advent, as we travel to the manger, may we live as if we really believe that we get to hold the Baby Jesus. As people who know that we are loved unconditionally and forgiven when we falter and gifted with life in the here-and-now as well as in the hereafter. And may we live into the truth that we are not unique, and that everyone is invited to hold the Baby Jesus.
Those who are brave enough to tell their stories and those who refuse to believe those stories.
Those who hold “Black Lives Matter” signs and those who don’t understand the need for such signs
Those who have no place to sleep tonight and those who live in houses with too many rooms to even use
Those who build walls and those who build bridges.
Everyone gets to hold the baby Jesus, who came for us all. Let us live for the day when we can live like we believe it.