Christmas, every Christmas is a Thin Place. According to the Irish, a Thin Place is a place where the boundaries between heaven and earth fall away. Every Christmas is a Thin Place where the boundaries between our everyday existence and the reality that we are all part of something so much bigger than ourselves, well these boundaries fade away at Christmas. Thin Places are those precious moments in time when the sacred can be seen in the everyday stuff of life. Christmas with its powerful parables, myths, metaphors, and symbols acts as a giant welcoming Thin Place were the boundaries and veils fall away and we are able to recognize the sacred in ourselves, in one another, and in the world around us. I could go on and on about the power of Thin Places to open us to the reality of the LOVE that we call God. But rather than try to explain how the Christmas stories, parables, myths, metaphors, and symbols create thin places, let me tell you a story designed to create a thin place where together we can see the veil between the scared and the everyday fade away.
It was the day before the day before Christmas and Angela had just about finished decorating her band new swanky apartment on the West-side. Everything was just perfect; each of the decorations had been chosen with such care. Just like all the furniture in her apartment each and every one of the Christmas decorations was brand spanking new. In a couple of hours Angela expected that her apartment would be full of guests. Her guests had been as carefully chosen as each of the items that adorned her apartment. It was all designed to show everyone how very well Angela was doing.
This Christmas, unlike so many other Christmases that Angela had endured, this Christmas everything was going to be perfect. Angela planned to lavishly entertain her guests. The evening’s entertainment was guaranteed to get Angela’s Christmas off to the best of starts. At least here in her lovely new home, Angela would be in control. Unlike the chaos of her family’s Christmas gatherings. All her life, Angela had endured the trials and tribulations of her family’s dysfunctional yuletide gatherings; gatherings that always ended up with various family members arguing over some perceived slight. Tonight, things would be different. Tonight, Angela hadn’t invited a single member of her outrageous family to come and dine. Tonight, Angela’s guests were made up of the great and the good, new friends and work colleagues; people Angela could count on to behave admirably. Tonight, everything would be perfect.
All she needed to do to finish off the room, was to assemble the new nativity set that she had just purchased upon her beautiful fireplace mantle. She hadn’t planned to purchase a nativity set, but when she saw the hand-carved, olive- wood nativity set in the window of the swanky gift shop, she just knew that it was perfect.
As she carefully unpacked her perfect nativity, Angela’s mind wandered back over the years to the very first Christmas that she could remember. Angela was just four years old. She and her sister together with her parents were living in her Grandma’s house in England. Above the coal fire-place, high on the mantle, out of reach from Angela or her sister’s tiny hands there was a small nativity set. It had been Angela’s Grandma’s when she was a little girl and it was the focal point of all the Christmas decorations in her their small sitting room. Angela remembered wondering on that long-ago Christmas Eve, if Father Christmas would bring her a new doll. She remembered her Grandma reaching for the big black book while Angela, her sister, and even her Mom and Dad assembled themselves in front of the fire to listen as her Grandmother read the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of the baby Jesus. When the story was over, her Grandma picked Angela up so that she could reach the nativity set and handed her a tiny little baby Jesus. Grandma told Angela to put the baby Jesus in the little bed in the stable. Everyone watched as Angela carefully placed the baby Jesus ever so gently in his tiny little bed. Angela remembered sitting in her father’s lap as everyone began to sing.
It wasn’t long after that Christmas that Angela and her family left her Grandma behind and moved to Ireland. Angela missed her Grandma terribly. But in Ireland she had new grandparents to get to know. Angela’s Irish grandparents lived in a very fancy house. Angela remembered Christmas in their home, a large box was brought down from the attic out of which all sorts of beautiful Christmas ornaments were unpacked. Neither Angela nor her sister were allowed to touch any of the ornaments. Over and over again they heard the words, “Look but do not touch!”
Angela missed her Grandma’s little sitting room and wondered who was going to put the baby Jesus to bed on his birthday. A few days before Christmas a package arrived for Angela. It was the very first package Angela ever received. She was so excited that her mother had to help her unwrap it. Inside the package they discovered the nativity set from Grandma’s sitting room. Angela remembered the fuss she made when her Irish grandparents insisted that the nativity set would look better up in her bedroom. Angela threw a temper tantrum, as only a five-year-old can, until Grandma’s nativity set was arranged in a place of honour above the fire-lace.
Angela hid the baby Jesus in her room until Christmas Eve. After dinner on Christmas Eve, Angela waited and waited but no one read the story. Finally, no long willing to wait, she asked her Dad if he had a big black book. It took a while for the adults to catch on. But eventually a Bible was found and the story was read. Angela’s father lifted her up and together they tucked the baby Jesus into his tiny little bed.
Eventually, Angela and her family moved out of her Irish grandparents’ home, and into a shabby little place of their own. Each year Grandma’s nativity set occupied a place of honour on the family’s mantle. When Angela was ten, her family began to prepare for yet another move.
Her father explained to Angela and her sister that they were moving very far away and they wouldn’t be able to take all their stuff with them. So, Angela secured a place in one of the big steamer trunks for her favorite doll. She didn’t mind leaving most of her toys behind because the house they moved into was grand and glorious. As Christmas approached, her parents brought all sorts of packages from the stores and decorations were hung everywhere.
One afternoon Angela’s mother asked her to go with her to pick out a new nativity set. and for the first time, Angela realized that her Grandma’s nativity set had not made the journey to their new home. When Angela stopped crying her mother explained that she had sent the nativity set back to her Grandma’s for safe-keeping. Her Mother told her how happy her Grandma would be to have it back in her sitting room. Angela told her mother that she didn’t want a new nativity set, but her Mom went out and bought one anyway. It was a really dumb set. The baby Jesus was stuck to his bed. How could a baby, stuck to his bed ever appreciate being tucked in on his birthday? Nevertheless, the new nativity set was placed on the coffee table, as there was no fire-place in the new house. That first Christmas in the new house they forgot to read the story about the baby Jesus. Angela remembers silently wishing Jesus a happy birthday before she went to sleep.
Over the years the beauty of Grandma’s nativity set grew in Angela’s memory. It became the most beautiful nativity set that she or anyone else had ever seen. Angela never saw a nativity set that could match the wonder of her Grandma’s beautiful scene. Each year, Angela would remind her father about how they used to celebrate Christmas. She would go on and on about that beautiful nativity set.
When Angela was twenty, she returned to England and got a job in London. Each weekend Angela would travel two hours by train to visit her Grandma. She vividly remembers that Christmas Eve, when she arrived at her Grandma’s. Angela went straight into the sitting room and there up on the mantel she saw the strangest thing. Grandma’s nativity set stood in its rightful place, but it was not as Angela had remembered it. It was so very tacky. It was made of rubber. The shepherds were not made to the same scale as Mary and Joseph. They were so large they dwarfed the stable. One of the wise guys had lost his gift. The donkey’s ear had been glued back on. Mary’s face was all smudged and Joseph’s right hand was badly chewed up. The angel on the stable roof was positively ugly. Convinced that a pack of rotten children must have descended upon the nativity set and destroyed its former glory, Angela asked her Grandma what had happened to her beautiful nativity. How did it get into such bad shape?
Her Grandma explained that it had been like that since she was a little girl. It had been one of her favorite toys and she had played with it so much that she had almost worn it out. Then there was Angela’s Dad and her uncles who had bashed it about as they played with it. By the time Angela was born, the set was so battered that they kept it up on the mantle so that it wouldn’t be completely destroyed by Angela and her sisters’ tiny hands.
Angela went over to the book shelf and gout out the big black bible. Her Grandma handed her the tiny baby Jesus and Angela tucked him safely into his little bed in the stable. As her Grandma read the familiar tale of Jesus’ birth, Angela began to wonder about that first Christmas. She couldn’t help imagining the rag tag couple travelling to Bethlehem; about the messy accommodations in the stable. The scruffy looking shepherds. The smell that must have filled the air. Not a very auspicious place for the Word to become flesh and dwell among them. As her Grandma closed the big black bible, Angela remembered her own inauspicious surroundings. The Word had come to Angela in a beaten up old ugly nativity set.
As Angela remembered her Gran serving up their Christmas feast, she realized that the years had not been kind to her Grandma. She was old and tired, this would be one of her last Christmases. Angela remembered all the stories her Grandma had told her over the years and all the wisdom that this wise woman hand imparted. When her Grandma kissed Angela goodnight, Angela gently reminded her Grandma to say her prayers. Remembering her Grandma in her swanky new west end apartment, Angela couldn’t help herself, she just had to say happy birthday to Jesus on his birthday. Angela carefully packed her hand-carved, olive-wood nativity set back into its box. She retrieved her Grandma’s old, ugly, nativity set from the farthest reaches of her storage locker. Angela carefully arranged Grandma’s old, ugly, nativity upon her beautiful new mantle. She dug out the big old black Bible and placed it ready and waiting for guests to arrive, when together with her guests she would tuck the baby Jesus into his tiny little bed.
Once the tiny baby Jesus was tucked in and her guests were well fed and entertained, Angela packed up her Grandma’s old, ugly nativity set and the big old black bible to make the long journey to her family’s home. She wanted to be sure to get there early on Christmas Eve so that she could help her nieces set up their Great-Grandma’s nativity set in time to read the story and tuck the little baby Jesus into his tiny little bed in the stable, so that together they could wish Jesus a very happy birthday. Angela couldn’t contain herself at the prospect of those little girls seeing the beauty of her Grandma’s nativity.
Christmas is a thin place. A place where the boundaries between the sacred and the everyday become permeable and the veils with which we insulate ourselves from the miracle that this life is fall away, and as the scales covering our eyes are healed by the proximity of the Divine we open ourselves to the wonders of life. If we have the courage to open ourselves to the thin places of Christmas we can see once more the beauty of all that life can be. Christmas with all its nostalgia and sentimentality is a thin place indeed; a place where we can become if only for a moment or two, all that we are created to be. Christmas is a thin place where we are opened to the LOVE that is always there.
The gospel-story tellers wove their tales about the birth of Jesus in ways that would open their people to the wonders of life in the midst of time when seeing the beauty of life was almost impossible because of the incredible persecution, violence, and hatred that was part and parcel of everyday life at the end of the first century in Palestine. Those gospel-story tellers used all the sentimentality available to them to create the necessary thin place to open their people to the beauty and the wonders of life. So, they summoned up angels, and heavenly hosts, the brightest of stars in the sky, and exotic wise folk from distant lands to meet the reality of an unmarried young girl, a frightened old man, a paranoid King, poverty, persecution and unparalleled violence.
Once there carefully constructed parable was created, these gospel-story tellers pointed to the miracle of birth to open their listeners to the reality of the Divine ONE they had experienced in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Did it happen the way they wrote it? If you can’t see beyond the parable, filled with metaphors, symbols and images to the truth to which it points, you haven’t yet arrived at the thin place. Open yourselves. Indulge yourselves in the sentiments of the season. Let those smaltzy Christmas movies, all that sappy Christmas music, the nostalgic Christmas cards, the over-the-top crescendos and the sentimental stories of Christmas’ past, do what they are designed to do and embark on the journey into the thin place that Christmas is, so that you can experience the sacred in the everyday stuff of this amazing, wondrous, miracle that life is. Let the LOVE that lies at the very heart of reality permeate you.
In this thin place, let us remember the story of young woman who was visited by a messenger and told that she was going to experience the miracle of new life that was growing inside of her. In this thin place let us open ourselves to the reality of Love so that we too can celebrate new life growing inside of us. In this thin place that Christmas is, let us nourish the Love that dwells among us so that LOVE can take on flesh and nourish the world. In this thin place may the boundaries between the sacred and the everyday become permeable so that Mary’s dream of the peace that comes through justice for the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, and the outcasts can be born anew in this world that cries out for LOVE. In this thin place may the veils and the scales fall away so that we can see again the wonders of the miracle that life is. In this thin place that Christmas is, may you and yours be touched by the Holy ONE who dwells among us, now and always so that Love can once again be born in you.
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