Welcome to the blog of author Marlo Schalesky!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Embracing the Mystery of Christmas

Merry Christmas, Friends!

Some thoughts on the mystery of Christmas from the life of Mary and my book Wrestling with Wonder ...

Living with Mystery
The encounter with the shepherds is told in simple terms. They hurry to Bethlehem to find Mary, Joseph, and the baby who is lying in the manger. And when they’ve seen him, they go off and tell everyone what they’ve seen and heard. People are amazed.
But they aren’t transformed. They are simply wowed by a wow-worthy story.
Mary, however, doesn’t say “wow.” Instead, she says, “hmmm …”
Because I think she sees the incongruities. 
She doesn’t just take a glance at a babe in a manger. She holds him, encounters him, and so is able to see the truth – that the angel’s proclamation of “a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah” (v. 11) does not sit comfortably with “you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (v. 12) There should not be a Messiah in a Manger. That just doesn’t make sense.
So she treasures up what she’s heard and seen, and she ponders in her heart. In the Greek, the word for “ponder” also means to bring together, to meet. So, we have the idea of bringing together disparate ideas in her mind and mulling over what they might mean.
            She grapples with ideas that don’t easily come together and make sense, because she encounters, as a babe in a manger, a God who does not always make sense. She encounters a God who asks her not to have it all figured out with tidy explanations and clear conclusions, but to wrestle with the mysteries of who this Messiah-God really is.
            Here are just a few mysteries to be treasured, to be pondered:
--Angels who don’t come to sing for their King, but show up to shepherds. Now that doesn’t make sense. 
--A Messiah lying in a feeding trough. Now that doesn’t make sense. St. Francis of Assisi wrote in a letter: “Though he was wealthy beyond reckoning, he still willingly chose to be poor with his blessed mother.” And we know that God intended it that way because the angel sent the shepherds not to a barn or a house or a street or an address. He sent them to a manger. “This will be a sign to you,” he said, “You will find a baby wrapped I cloths and lying in a manger.”
            --A Redeemer in rags. Now that doesn’t make sense. Seventh century English monk Bede writes, “It should be noted that the sign given of the Savior’s birth is not a child enfolded in Tyrian purple, but one wrapped with rough pieces of cloth …” 
            If, like Mary, we are close enough to Jesus to hold him, to be near him, to be in a real relationship with him over time, we too will encounter mystery. We come up against truths that are hard to reconcile but are true all the same.  We will have to wrestle, and wonder.  Treasure and ponder.
But if, like the shepherds, we only travel once to the manger, we take a glance to corroborate what we’ve been told, then leave to other tasks (even good ones), then we will see the baby. We will confirm what we’d hoped to be true. But we will miss the mystery. We will not encounter the deeper things of God. We will have no treasure to ponder.
So often we think that the closer we are to Christ, the more answers we must have. But Mary teaches us that is not necessarily true. The shepherds have no questions, no doubts, no wonderings. But Mary does. The one who has carried him in her womb, held him in her arms, is the one who has no answers. She is the one who ponders the paradoxes and treasures them in her heart.
She is called to live with the mystery of a messiah who is already so different from what she could have imagined. She ponders and treasures the mystery of things that cannot yet make sense.
            The question is, will we? 
Why is it that so often we feel we need to make explanations for what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of those around us? If the shepherds came to us, would we explain why the babe was in a feeding trough? Would we excuse the stink, the poverty, the rough rags and splintered wood? Would we spout platitudes or deny the strangeness of what is true?
Would we say:
It’s not really that bad. (It’s not really a feeding trough.)
I don’t mind. (I didn’t want a real room.)
God is good, so I have nothing to complain about. (These aren’t really rags.)          
What if instead we saw God for who he really is? The God who provides only a trough for his own Son’s crib. The God who sends shepherds to a baby wrapped in rags. The God who leaves heaven to become a baby in poverty. The God who does things in our lives that we don’t understand, that don’t seem to make sense, that aren’t supposed to … yet.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Wonder in the Barns of Life

Hi Friends,

Merry Christmas! Today I'm making final preparations for a talk I'll be giving at a local church, to their women's group. I'm so looking forward to sharing about finding the wonder of God in the Barns of Life, which to me is the message of Christmas. 

So today, I'd like to share a little with you about how it might have been for Mary as she gave birth in the place where animals lived. This is an excerpt from my book on Mary, titled Wrestling With Wonder:

Mary Tells Her Story

There’s no place for us.  No place for this babe, this Son of the Almighty God, that I bear.  
But the pains come anyway.  Sharp, insistent.  Not now, I want to say.  Not yet.  There is no place for you.  Nowhere for you to be born.
But my womb clenches again and I gasp.  The pains are more regular now, radiating into my back.  He will not wait, this divine baby of mine.
Joseph approaches me, places a hand on my tight belly.  He shakes his head.  
No place for us.
I nearly double over.  My breath comes quickly now, heavily.

“There is a place with the animals,” he whispers.
I swallow.  Hard.  Is it possible that this child, the Messiah, the King of all Kings, will be born in a barn?  No...
Lord, is there no where else?  Can You find no other place for your own Son?
But the heavens are silent.  No guest room, no spare closet, no private corner in a relative’s home.
And the pain comes again.  
Joseph takes my arm.  “We must hurry.”  
“Not the stable.”
“It’s the only place. I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry too.  Oh, Lord . . .
Step by step, stopping to breathe, to not breathe.  To groan.  I make my way toward the animals.
And then we are there.  In the rustling, the stink, the dirt, the mud.  No midwife.  No friend.  No mother.  Just me.  Just Joseph.  And them.
A donkey brays.  
A cow lifts its tail.
A horse stomps and spreads four legs.
No, not here ... 
I lay on the filthy straw.  I pant.  I cry.
A horse nickers, pushes at an empty feeding trough.  
I swat a fly.  And the pain comes again.
This time, I scream.  I wheeze.  I gasp.  And my mind floods with ripping agony.  Ten seconds.  Twenty.  Thirty.  A minute.  And more.  I breathe again.  I must breath.
Joseph grabs the rags. I am sweating now.  He wipes my brow.  But there is nothing he can do.  He cannot share this pain.
No one can.
My belly contracts.  Hard.  I clench my teeth. Bite back my shouts.  
It hurts.  Oh Lord, it hurts so much.  
My sweat, mixed with the smell of horse urine and cow dung.  The snuffling of a donkey.  The frightened glance of a husband who is not the baby’s father.
Help, Lord!
A rush of water runs down my legs.  Minutes turn to hours.  Hours of shocking pain and moments of panting relief.  On and on. 
The pain.  Mind-numbing.  Middle-ripping.  Pain.
And the pressure.
Finally, the baby is coming.  I scream at Joseph.  But he is ready.  
I am half-squatting, half-laying.  
“Push,” he yells.
I push.
I yell.
I breathe.  Breathe in the rank stink.  Breath in the smell of blood.  Breathe in the scent of things that no king should smell.
But this King will.  
Oh God, will He really be born in a barn?  Your Son?  The hope of all Israel?
I push.  And rest.  And push.  And yell.  And push.  And cry.  And push.  And groan.
It is no easy thing to birth a Savior.
I see his head!”  Joseph’s eyes are wide.  His hands ready.
I bear down.  Hard.
And the baby comes.  A King, sliding into this world covered in vernix and blood, and surrounded by animals as the only witnesses to this moment that will change the world.  
Joseph laughs.
The baby wails.
And I weep.
I weep for a Promise born in a barn.  I weep for a Messiah born in the stink.  I weep for King crowned not with gold but with blood.  Will it always be so?
Joseph cuts the baby’s cord.  He presses my stomach and the afterbirth spews from me.  
It is done, this birthing of a Savior.
Joseph wipes him with a rag and hands him to me.  I gather him in my arms.  He looks so normal, this Son of God.  So ordinary.  So small, this tiny babe, with a stock of dark hair, a red face, and wrinkled, old-man skin.  This, this is the One we’ve waited for.  
I close my eyes and kiss his forehead.
He squirms and squawks at me.
I wrap this ordinary, extraordinary baby in rags and place him in the empty feeding trough.  A box made for the animals to eat becomes his bed.  He looks around.  Dark grey eyes taking in a world gone awry.  
What must it be like for God to see through the eyes of a human babe?  To smell through a human nose?  To feel the scratch of the rags, the hardness of the board?
But he doesn’t cry.  Not at this moment.  
He just looks.
He sees.
And I catch my breath.
There is the King of all Kings, the Son of God Himself, wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding trough.  A Messiah surrounded by stink.  But somehow I don’t smell it anymore.
I laugh.  I laugh at the incongruity.  I laugh at the wildness of my God.  

I laugh, because the God of the Universe took my barn and turned it into a palace.  He took what should not be and filled it with wonder.