Driving around my town in North Carolina, I have come across a handful of houses that had decorated their yards with an empty manger staged in front of an empty cross. This juxtaposition of Christian symbols struck me as peculiar, so I began asking some of my friends if they had ever come across a display like this.
My Catholic friends were helpful in understanding the empty manger, which I could recall having seen previously. Traditionally Catholics wait until the Christmas midnight mass to place the baby Jesus in the manger. If Advent is a season of expectation of the Christ child, this liturgical practice makes sense. But what about the cross behind it?
I believe this stark manager and cross scene was intended to emphasize a theology centered around atonement: Jesus was born, so that he could die and save humanity. These combined symbols are somber reminders to all who drive by of our own sinfulness and need for salvation. I’m intimately familiar with this particular understanding of Christianity, so this wasn’t surprising.
But still, I find myself deeply saddened by this display of the empty and isolated symbols.
Where is the body?
Where is the community?
Where is the life?
If there were ever a time when we need to affirm the dignity of bodies, it is now as we witness an endless stream of state-sanctioned violence against people of color, a right-wing movement–more emboldened than ever–to restrict women’s bodily autonomy and shame women for their reproductive decisions, and the ongoing atrocities against innocent people in Aleppo.
If there were ever a time when we need to claim the importance of community, it is now as we reel from the election of Donald Trump and endure the onslaught of news about the deeply problematic and downright frightening cabinet appointments made daily.
If there were ever a time when we need to claim the goodness of life, it is now.
In these chaotic times I have found myself turning to the writings of spiritual leaders like Howard Thurman. His meditation “Life Goes On” has particularly rung true for me this Advent season. He writes:
It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained. Birds still sing; the stars continue to cast their gentle gleam over the desolation of the battlefields, and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed.
To hold onto beauty, joy, and love in the midst of such uncertainty is a profound act of spiritual resistance. For me this has meant enjoying walks in the woods, soaking in the beauty of our church’s orchestra and choir, reading good books, and engaging in life-giving conversations with those I hold close to my heart.
Consider this post permission to claim your joy, whatever that means for you.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a thought leader, strategist, and connector who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Her book Women Rising will be published by the FAR Press in 2017. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com.
17 thoughts on “Making Room for Joy this Advent by Katey Zeh”
Thanks. I find the cross behind the empty manger creepy. Even the empty manger is creepy, at least the sheep and cows should be there. Or no manger at all until Dec 24.
Extremely disturbing, I agree. Holiday blessings to you!
Wishes by the same to you and your family. MAH
Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) 8121 Georgia Ave. #310 Silver Spring, Maryland 20910 USA 301 589-2509 Skype: maryhunt1
Much love to you!
I really needed these words today. Thank you, Katey. Wishing you joy.
Blessings to you, Elizabeth!
We do indeed need the community, a community of understanding and love and joy. I agree that the empty manger and the cross are creepy. Why worship a tortured figure? Let us receive the blessings of the sun goddesses who bring warmth and light and all the goodies (like crops) that come with warmth and light. Blessed solstice, y’all! (Well, a bit early, but blessings can never come too soon.)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Amen! I love it. Thank you, Barbara.
So many people I know, including myself, need to be reminded that there is joy, and even intelligence, still in the world. Thank you for the reminder Katey.
I’m familiar with the empty manger, but we always had straw, and cows and sheep, with a patiently waiting Mary and Joseph! The statue of the baby was placed in during Midnight Mass. I love Advent and the “O” antiphons longing for freedom “from the prisons that hold us”.
Right?! Where is the community surrounding the manger? Blessings to you this season, Barbara.
Thanks Katey. A comment on “making room for joy” and also your question “Where is the community?”
I was a faithful church goer at one time, but at last I Iet go of the Catholic church because it refused to ordain women. There simply came a time when I could no longer accept that. I also lost my lifelong companion, and I have to fight off the grief and pain of that loss every single day.
However, each morning, I go out for a fairly decent walk and end up in a delightful cafê, about a mile from my apartment, and where lots of other New Yorkers have breakfast, many like me, living alone, but we know each other by name, and most of us read morning newspapers too, that is, so that we can stay in touch with what’s going on in the world, and that’s healthy. It takes courage to figure out creative ways to survive the disappointments in life.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Sarah, I want to honor the pain of your lost church. I don’t pretend to know what that’s like. But, I love the community you’ve found at the local cafe. That’s absolutely lovely.
“To hold onto beauty, joy, and love in the midst of uncertainty is a profound act of spiritual resistance.” Yes, indeed, thanks for this wonderful post, Katey Zeh, and wishing you great joy this advent.
Thank you, Fran. And the same to you!
As a storyteller who gets to tell various kinds of tales related to Christmas, I’m soaked in community most of the month. The creche I share with listeners is NOT empty but filled with kid-handle-able Mary, Joseph, and Babe in (glued into) the animals’ FOOD trough. I help the kids, with a gentle touch, see the symbolism of the LIGHT the child brings us all and how that energy FEEDS us from humble shepherds to Persian kings. The Child brings courage when we need it, and draw us into connection. Small diverse wildlife fills our barn-like creche. Another folk-story we share is of a lonely (oppressed) spider who people consider ugly….. so she moves into what she thinks is an animal-filled barn to hide. Soon a couple enters and a light-giving-babe is born. Thinking the child is COLD, mother spider collects her various webs to wrap them like a blanket around the babe. The mother assures the spider her generosity IS a thing of beauty to the Child. Community warms and reminds us of our true gifts – and every young listener gets to take away a small (party-store) animal of her or his choice. We’ve got everything from sheep to giraffes to spider variations. X.J.Kennedy’s The Beasts of Bethlehem shows through animal conversations the struggling energies of our world can be tamed by that light-filled Child IN the manger. Blessings on the work and play ahead of us. Thanks for this conversation.
What a gift your storytelling is! I love the story of the spider and know that my daughter would too. Is there a book that tells that particular story that we could get for her?
Focusing on the simple joys of being alive is a form of spiritual resistance and I didn’t realize that until I read this post. It is a choice I made after coming to terms with my grief over this election. Thank you for helping me to name what I am doing.