The first time I ever understood the Nativity, I was in a village called Yanoun, in the hills above the West Bank city of Nablus. I was there to visit friends who were serving, on behalf of the World Council of Churches, as nonviolent accompaniers alongside the Palestinian villagers.
We were given a tour of the village and surrounds by two young men, both shepherds, who joked around with each other as they shared their day with us. They showed us where they kept their sheep. It was a low, dark cave, noisy and crowded with their animals, and smelling like…well…sheep. The mangers – troughs out of which the sheep ate – were a tad rusty from use and exposure, with the animals pushing at each other to find space to eat. It was a good hangout for sheep, but not really the sort of place where you’d want to have a kid. I remember thinking: “Oh. I see. If God can be born here, I guess God can be born anywhere.”
I reflect on that scene every year at this time. I am one of those folks for whom this time of year can be difficult. I suspect this is the case for many people who have mental health struggles. I don’t know if it’s just the short days and long nights; if it’s the anxiety of expectations created by the lights and merriment; if it’s the contrast between the good news of great joy that the angels bring against the bleakness of the current news that my social media feed brings; if, as a college chaplain, it’s just my body and mind downshifting after a stressful semester. For many, feelings of isolation or grief are particularly intense at this time of year. Whatever the reason, I often struggle to experience the happiness of this season.
But God, you see, can be born anywhere.
The story we will heard read in our churches tonight, or gathered with our families tomorrow, is a story against a bleak background. Social and political forces are at work, imperial decrees ominous with threatened violence, far beyond the ability of our protagonists to control. The family, desperately far from home, huddles in a low, dark cave, smelling of…well…sheep.
Here, against this bleak background, Christ is born. And if here, then anywhere – in all the messiness of our world and our hearts, in the midst of whatever we are thinking, feeling, wrestling with during this season.
So if you are like me, and this time of year can be difficult; and also, if you are not like me at all, and this time of year is full of brightness and cheer; either way, lean in close to the scene in this cave. You will find, there, something that will outlast the sounds of the carols or even the songs of the angels.
There. Can you hear it? Underneath the crying of the child, and the sounds of the sheep?
There it is — barely a whisper, compared to the clamoring of empires. Hidden within the breath of the mother, huddled over her newborn, cradled by the surrounding darkness.
A quiet, fierce joy.
Whatever we carry with us in this season, may we experience the birth of a God who can be born anywhere. And whatever we are feeling or experiencing, may we be bearers of this resilient joy.
David Finnegan-Hosey is the author of Christ on the Psych Ward and Grace is a Pre-Existing Condition: Faith, Systems, and Mental Healthcare. He serves as College Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministries at Barton College. He holds an M.Div from Wesley Theological Seminary and a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. He is certified by Mental Health First Aid USA to provide initial help to people experiencing depression, anxiety, psychosis, and substance use disorders. In 2011, David was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a series of psychiatric hospitalizations. He now speaks and writes about the intersections among mental illness, mental health, and faith. David lives in Wilson, NC with his wife Leigh, their daughter Laila, and their dog Penny Lane.