Nativity, sans Baby Jesus

Baby Jesus in a Teacup

While this season is defined by waiting and hoping, of promises and stillness, it is also when some of us look inward, on the cracked and broken ground of what we believe, what we seek, and where to look for hope, guidance, faith. If this is you at all: I see you. Welcome. If you don’t know where to begin, start small — I grew up finding Baby Jesus in a teacup, and that is not a bad starter tenet for everything else.

Every Christmas season, there was the olivewood Nativity, bought in Jerusalem by my grandparents, displayed on the mantle. The manger was empty, all the days of waiting. And on Christmas morning, one child would follow my mother into the kitchen, and she would retrieve Baby Jesus from a teacup in the cupboard, and the lucky child would place him in the manger bed, completing the set. Our next generation does the same thing, someone following my sister into her kitchen, and looking in teacups for the miniscule figure.

Lessons I learned from my mother are both tiny and enormous, and still unfolding. They could be an entire book, or a feature film that would actually just look like my entire adult life being lived. Important lesson herein is that my mother tucked Baby Jesus into the most routine part of her daily life. I mean really, bless anyone raising a houseful of kids, in times where money was tight, there were social movements afoot causing division and derision (but also shining a light on marginalized people), trying to be a quiet steady voice about justice and equality and access and inclusion. Oh wait. I have lived long enough to see history repeating. Sigh. Among the things I learned from those formative years: sometimes you need to take a moment, sit quietly, and have a cup of something warm — re-center, re-focus, reclaim your time.

These coming days of this Christmas season are the days of seeking and searching, of desperately wanting good news to be Good News (or for Good News to be good news). But it is also the season of listening to the little internal voice, asking what you believe, how you believe, and if you believe out loud. Those are ridiculously difficult questions. And luckily, this is not an exam that sets us up to fail. Also luckily, we don’t have to leave our jobs and homes and traverse across dangerous terrain to find out if what we hear may be true. This is a season to remember that Baby Jesus was a little brown baby, born to immigrant parents who were super-poor, but (this is the important part) who were doing the best they could. It is no small thing that the seeds of change arrived in darkness and difficulty.

Oh there are plenty of things I do not like about my own religion (discussion for a different day), teachings that have been twisted and behaviors that have been dealbreakers, for me. But the foundations remain: be kind, be kind, be kind. Care for each other, and about each other. Share, give, receive. When the delivery gets murky, I retreat, re-center, re-focus, reclaim my time — and care for the tiny seeds of what I believe, commit to doing what I can no matter how small. Guiding words along the way have been from Archbiship Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good wherever you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Of course, Desmond Tutu also famously said that helping others is not a social or political act — we feed each other because good news to a hungry person, is bread. (Or, in more current language: in the story of the loaves and fishes, there was no discussion by pundits about what if people in the crowd on the hillside sell the food for drug money; they simply were fed.)

Desmond Tutu’s death today seems particularly fitting in these days of wonder, not wonder and awe — though there is certainly that — but wonder about what is next, how to grapple with facing large challenges armed only with small acts, about daily life and inequality and justice and peace and trying to maintain some semblance of spiritual wellness. His teachings often centered on the gut-level, relating to real-life concerns, and no one can teach (or learn) about the apartheid movement without studying Tutu. He welcomed women to the pulpit, integrated at every level, called out the deafening silence of whites in the face of injustices to Blacks, was committed to non-violence, pointed out hypocrisy, worked tirelessly for equality and inclusion and voting rights and education and civil change, and reconciliation. His legacy as a whole is overwhelming. But his legacy also includes the recognition that groundswell movements begin (as the name indicates) on the ground, and every person is capable of making a difference — of doing what we can, where we are, with what we have.

During college, my son lived in South Africa for half a year. In that time, he attended both Mass and teachings by Archbishop Tutu. At the time, Tutu was retired from public life, but still preaching his messages of equality and inclusion, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation and good news. He also had resolute belief that young people held the promise of the future, and had every tool necessary to transform social change. When things look or feel overwhelming, he urged, imagine one small act you can do, and do that. It is the gospel of doing the next right thing, available to every single person. We only stand out in a crowd because we have risen on the shoulders of others.

My colleague Katie says she really cannot even begin with the Starfish Story — you know, where the beach is littered with dying starfishes and a little girl starts picking them up one by one and tossing them back into the sea, and someone tells her her efforts won’t make a difference, and she answers “it made a difference to that one” as she tosses yet another starfish. Katie says it’s the feeling of not-doing-enough that is so destructive. And it kind of stinks that the antidote to that feeling is doing-something, no matter how small, because the truth is no one of us can do it all. I don’t think Desmond Tutu woke up every morning all gonna-end-apartheid-today, but I do think he starfished it just enough. So I tell Katie, in those overwhelming moments, to take a hot minute for herself, so she has energy to bring to the ones in the most need. If enough people each do enough, perhaps it is enough. (And, honestly, one day Tutu did wake up and apartheid ended — a movement built on the shoulders of a million small acts toward that outcome.)

Maybe the best way to counter the overwhelm and uncertainty is to look at what we need to take the next right step, the next caring move. And maybe what we need is to take a minute to care for ourselves, in order to hear the tiny voice of compassion, to follow the path of action, the art of sharing and kindness and concern, the business of being a decent human. We are in the business of lifting, and some of it is heavy. Some of it is also joyous. In order to lift, we need rest, too — and when we rest and recover, we are strengthened. When it all feels too much, we need to take a minute, a look again in the teacup of daily life, and maybe find our own Baby Jesus, and the message that what we are doing is indeed working.

(full disclosure: our current Nativity set includes a miniature leg-lamp, so consider that in my qualifications to give guidance here. your own teacup experience may vary.)

oh hey, Baby Jesus in a teacup, for real.

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