The story begins like this: sitting in a car with a dear friend, looking out at the vast expanse of the Rhode Island ocean, coming to the realization that this “Grace” word that was used so often in my vernacular, was one I couldn’t define for myself. I looked at the tossing sea-water that echoed so much of the tumult in my heart and I remember praying silently, my friend oblivious beside me, that the Lord would give me His words to define grace. A calling within my heart (and on my birth certificate – though in a different language!). A confusion and a chaos and a desire to understand this word that is the construct and input ingredient of the gospel. What is grace? What is this unmerited favor that the Bible speaks of, proclaims? How do I see it? How do I learn it for myself?
My definition began in the pages of Exodus.
Thousands of years ago, God, in his unshakeable mercy and boundless love, desired to dwell with his fallen people so much, he had Moses craft a tent that would suit him. With measurements, instructions, materials: a movable dwelling-place was built. Just as God required it, in his holiness and perfection. The tenacity of His desire to meet again with His beloved, to dwell again with His created ones defied all that Israel had done before. He brought them out of slavery, into the wilderness, so he could dwell with them there. With a thundering voice, he spoke to Moses on the great Mountain, about the Atonement Altar, the Altar of Incense, the places that were required to exist, just so, to allow for a constancy of Himself there.
It is important to note here, that this Tent he crafted, did not allow for the people, the vast majority anyhow, to Be in His presence. They could not enter into the presence of God. For most, their dirtiness, their mess, their inadequacies had to be interceded for by the Handpicked Ones, the high Priests of the Tabernacle, to merely have their sins forgiven. Entering into his presence was not allowed. They could not reach the Holy of Holies at all. Their relationship with God, though vibrant and full, was limited to conversations in a courtyard. Conversations, whose content I have imagined in recent days went something like this:
Lord, I know the offering isn’t much. I have given you my best lamb, with all of my mess and my wreckage on it, take it Lord God. Just King. My Sins are many. Have mercy on your child.
And so, many eons ago, there was a separation between the Holy One and his people, because though He loved them enough to make a way for there to be atonement, his Holiness did not allow the citizens of Israel close enough to experience his presence firsthand. They had to stay in the courtyard.
In the squalor of a borrowed stable.
On a night in Bethlehem, 2000+ years ago. A frantic husband, trying to find a place in which his wife could deliver the Son. I imagine there was fear, frustration, as villager upon villager in Bethlehem shook their head, and said “We are sorry, there is simply no room in this place.” When the innkeeper, shook his head, pointed at the barn on the hill, and said something to the effect of, “There is no room in this inn. But there is one place that is vacant for the night. Stay as long as you wish.”
In the Squalor of That borrowed Stable.
The Lord who demanded perfection, with measurements and instructions on the height, and breadth, and material, and the content of the offerings, and the ounces needed to be purchased of oil per year, this Specific King, this One who wanted so desperately to dwell with His people that he had the wilderness voyagers of Exodus create for Him the Tent he required, the only place that was fit for Him to stay. This same King. This specific King. So loved the world.
In That Squalor.
A teenage girl, with a swollen belly, lying on hay in a stable at the edge of town. There is nothing put together about this scene. There are animals, feeding troughs, food for the livestock. The donkey that was ridden all of those miles, taking moments to eat after the journey. I imagine there were lambs. Perhaps cattle. Perhaps. And hay. Nothing shined, there was wood and sod and a building that was not built for a king. There was no specificity of measurements, there was no incense, there was no slaughter. There was a baby, born to a young girl and her husband in the middle of a stable. In the middle of mess. There He met us. There. In that squalor. There.
In The Squalor.
Advent: the season of Arrival. When the world takes time out of the busy schedule to prepare: gifts to give. the house to receive guests. the feasts to gorge themselves on.
Moses prepared. He prepared That temple with precision, in which God could dwell. I imagine him writing down each measurement, deep into parchment, aware that preparing This Place meant delivering on all of the things the Lord had spoken to him on the Mountain during those 40 days. The ark with its cherubim and acacia wood over-layed with gold. Each hanging: on the south side of the court, at the gate of the court, and everything in-between. The Bronze altar. The altar of Atonement. The altar of Incense. The Bread. The oil. And so much more. Forty days communing with God to receive every instruction that was required for the Place of His Dwelling.
And thousands of years later, who could have foreseen that the God-Son would come. To the squalor of a stable that was given to Mary and Joseph for but an evening. That when God became flesh, he chose to be welcomed not with trumpets or gold or marble ceilings and immaculate surfaces but in the mess and wreckage of a stable made for animals. Who could have foreseen that thousands of years after that specific Tent was Built, Mary would lay the Son of God in a manger. A feeding trough. This Savior of the World in a messy barn, in a messy world. How glorious.
In our Squalor.
It was but the beginning of the Lord proving himself to us, as the One Who Would Meet Us In Our Mess. Without preparing a spotless place in which to rest. Meeting us in our wreckage and dirt, embracing us despite the sin that has stained every limb: It Is Here, in this Squalor, that he has promised to meet us, that through Jesus we can meet and commune with Him.
His presence is no longer limited to a seat in the Holy of Holies. He is no longer separated from His People.
He has met us in the courtyard. In our mess.
It is no longer us pleading in the courtyard that he would see our efforts to eradicate sin from us. He tore the curtain after all.
And we get this because of our Priest. This Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father, advocating for our forgiveness based on the sacrifice of Himself.
That unmerited favor I am beginning to understand. A surface-level definition and yet a mountain-peak-truth: a tip-of-the-iceberg paragraph that I am praying will be filled in in the coming days. This Grace that I am beginning to understand.
It is the meeting of holy and unholy, in our mess, in our squalor the Creator comes.
Grace sees the mess. Covers the mess. (Opens our eyes to see the ways Grace does all of this.) And uses our knowledge of the Just King Who Requires a Perfect Holy Place ( the one who requires perfection in his presence) to show us the unrelenting bits of His Mercy: through Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection we have access to the throne room, to the presence of God. And those who believe can approach boldly, in the blood-washed linen of our King.
In Our Squalor. His grace.
So on Christmas. I will be celebrating the beginning of this tangibility, this Word Became Flesh Son of Man who dwelt among us. For in the mess and the squalor of That Borrowed Stable: The Savior of the World.