Background: This advent, I have been filled with wonder at such a simple image: A pregnant woman, far from home. She is traveling with her new husband because they have to. There is no room in the human habitations. She gives birth in the manger. The child is something magnificent.
Because one of the sources of this image for me this year is an entire book, it is difficult to tie it into this practice. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this practice, I would like to quite heartily encourage you to check out the wonderful book of my good friend Jenn by clicking here.
This post contains the ingredients for many spiritual practices. The description below is broken into three sections. The first is an invitation to reading a number of different depictions of the entry into Bethlehem. The second is a visualization walking the reader through the events. The third is a series of reflections, meditations, and questions on these events.
I would recommend choosing only one element from each section for a session. If this feels productive, you might return to this exercise and choose a second reading and series of meditations for your next session. Less is more with spiritual practices.
There is a value in wondering about the historical details. But not for this practice, today. If it is easier, it would be just as helpful to imagine this scene occurring in a city today. Perhaps, instead of a donkey, Mary rides in a sidecar of an old, broken down motorcycle. Or her feet have swollen with the pregnancy and she is pushed by Joseph in a wheelchair.
Part A: Some Readings to Choose From
- Release your expectations and stress with three deep inhales and exhales.
- Consider one (or perhaps two) of the following passages. You may wish to read it more than once:
Click here to read Luke 2: 1-20
Or, read this poem about the event:
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …
–St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.
Or read this poem
Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
-Kaitlin Hardy Shetler
If you purchased the book suggested above, you might read the passage depicting Jesus’ birth in that book. Jesus birth happens in chapter 11 of The Favored One.
Part B. The Visualization
1. Inhale and exhale 3 times.
2. Bring to mind the reading from above. Sit with the images, thoughts, and feelings that might have come up from you. When you are ready, imagine the following. Try and do it from the perspective of one of the characters in the narrative: Pregnant Mary, Concerned Joseph, even The Donkey or a Jesus who has yet to be born. Experience this scene with your senses.
They have been traveling all day. Are they tired and weary? Is this faitgue tempered with fear or excitement? What is the temparature, as they enter into a town that is bursting at the seams? Imagine them coming into the town. Are there numerous places that are full? Are the Roman Solidiers standing by, ready to take a census? Does the concern on Mary and Joseph’s face grow? Hear the “clop” of the donkeys heels on the hard ground. Feel the sweat on the scratchy fabric of the shirt.
There comes a moment when it is clear that there will be no beds for this night, no roof that was made for people. What are the feelings you experience at this moment? Enter into the manger. Imagine the smells that come to you. What animals are present? Are they eating or making their animal noises? Are their flies? Are their attendants of the animals? How do they look at you, as you begin to move around the hay to make your shelter for the night?
Take the time you need to imagine the moments it becomes clear that the baby will be born here. In this place, at this time. Does the angelic visitation, and the promises made about this child feel close now? The water breaks. How do you feel? How does your partner feel? Does a midwife come into the picture? Is their pain? Medicine? Joy? Blood?
Imagine the first time Mary holds the baby. How did Joseph look when he first held the baby? When do they cut the cord? What happens next?
3. Continue this scene for as long as you would like. Return to the readings listed in section A. if you wish. I would encourage you to return to a passage you read earlier and try out a new reading the next time you engage this spiritual practice.
4. Sit with this scene and experience. Let it penetrate you until it is time to release it. When you have let it go, consider whether you will sit in a time of wordless union or if you will progress to section C. Here there are some questions and meditations to consider.
Section C: Some Questions and Meditations
- Inhale. Exhale. Bring to mind your experience of the readings in section A.
- Inhale. Exhale. Bring to mind your experience of the visualization in section B.
- Inhale. Exhale.
- Sit with any one of the following. Your may wish to save a second or third question or meditation for the future.
I. Return to that image of Jesus and Mary entering into the town. Sit with it for a moment. Now, make the town of Bethlehem your mind and heart. See Joseph and Mary entering into this space. What thoughts, feelings, or experiences are you having trouble welcoming? What difficult realities are you struggling to accept? See that their is a manger within you. This is a small, forgotten aspect of your own inner self. But it is all that you need. Invite this formerly unwelcome aspect of your own self here. Soon, Jesus will come into the world from this very space.
II. See Mary’s belly swollen with life about to enter the world. Christ is being born in you even now at this very moment. Sit with this experience of Christ being born in you. Feel it coming from elsewhere and entering into your world. Don’t rush this birth. Sit with what it could mean and how it might change you.
III. Dwell in the stark, perhaps uncomfortable reality of Jesus birth. It is no less paradoxical and extreme than any other birth. Filled with pain and possibility, hope and agony. It is bloody and scary, intimate and clinical. Take your time to put together what you have known and experienced of human birth and realize that all this applied to Jesus, too. After you have sat with this, consider what it might mean. What does it mean about God? What does it mean about Jesus? What does it mean about you? How does it alter your past? Your present? Your future?