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The Satellite and the Stable

An article for Advent by Elizabeth Brooke-Carr


Christmas is coming. It’s not yet Advent but already retailers are busy enticing shoppers with festive frippery and bright, shiny baubles. Silent Night floats out from sound systems although it’s broad daylight and the city streets resonate with pedestrian patter, the din of revving motors and squealing tyres. Fake snow settles on summer merchandise in shop windows. Strings of mini lights blink and wink from doorways, tempting customers. And they come, in droves, to pore over potential gift purchases. Acquisitive fingers fondle wish-list items, and poke at toys that squeak, cry, flash and buzz with alarming, mechanical realism. An extravaganza of spending has begun. The lure of commercialism precedes one of the most significant events in the Christian calendar. And the hype continues to build, advancing faster than a cockroach can find its way through a tangle of tinsel.
A cockroach, you ask, how on earth did a cockroach creep into this pre-Christmas reflection? They’re not particularly endearing creatures. Their beetle-like appearance with hard, brown, chitinous carapace, long antennae and legs are graceful enough in their own way. But the creepy-crawly, scavenging habits that carry them to all sorts of unexpected places can send shivers up the spine of the staunchest among us. Cockroaches are pests, really, not the sort of creatures you’d expect to find in pre-Christmas concatenations. But their penchant for turning up in unusual places knows no bounds.
In September of this year a Russian cockroach called Nadezhda, which means Hope, made a name for herself in history by becoming one of the first creatures ever to conceive in space. Following her not-quite-immaculate conception Nadezhda went on to give birth in microgravity conditions during the Foton-M bio-satellite space flight. Her thirty-three newborn babies, all reported to be eating and drinking well, now share the limelight with her. And, if her youngsters should hang their stockings up on Christmas Eve, whatever will Nadezdha do? Well, our modern-day, scientific wise men are there to focus on her just as steadfastly as the Three Kings of Orient once did on the stable where the Prince of Peace was born.
Wise Men of our era know that baby cockroaches are born with transparent carapaces that gradually turn brown as they grow. But these babies went darker earlier than usual. The Wise Men say it is probably too early yet to know if this was a direct result of having been born in micro gravity conditions. So they continue to observe closely. Could it be, perhaps, that these tiny cockroach babies will lead us to a greater understanding of life and the human condition? Like the Wise Men of old who recognised the wonder of the Eastern star and followed it to the birthplace of a baby who changed the course of history, the modern Wise Ones watch and wonder, too.
And what of our own birthplace? Does it have any bearing on our human development? What wisdom might it offer us? We all carry stories in our genes, of course. But many of us also carry stories in our heads and hearts of the place where we were born. It is the beginning of the story we tell about ourselves, where we begin to define who we are. The place around which memories are constructed, connections formed, and reviews of pride built. For many artists, entertainers, religious leaders, explorers, authors, and so on, their birthplace becomes an historic site associated with their life and works. In Bethlehem the Church of the Nativity is built atop the location where Christians believe Jesus was born. In a grotto deep within the church a fourteen-point star marks the very spot where Mary gave birth to her Son.
As Christmas 2007 approaches and we are drawn into the hurly burly of Christmas shopping and holiday plans, it’s difficult for us to imagine what might have been going through the minds of the young couple trudging towards Bethlehem on that first Christmas Eve. It must have been an uncomfortable trek for Mary on the back of a donkey. Certainly, it was a far cry from Nadezhda’s bio-satellite journey through the firmament of our modern world. The sophisticated, technological environment of the birthing unit for a mere cockroach makes a bizarre contrast to the humble, earthy surroundings of hay and animals for the Christ Child. But if the satellite and the stable have any connection at all, it is surely the purpose of both to remind us of our own birthplace, our own personal histories, and our own potential for greatness in a world that cries out for the largesse of love, peace and goodwill.



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