The Elephant in the Stable
While rummaging through the box of last year’s Christmas decorations, I discovered a porcelain baby elephant figurine mixed with the other animals for my Nativity scene (Belen). How it found itself among the other animals, I could not recall. I only remembered it as a gift from my former co-worker, Javed, who hailed from India. It symbolized wisdom, he said, among other attributes.
Should I include it among the other animals surrounding the manger? It leaped out of nowhere as if pleading to be included. On second thought, would an elephant be congruous with the other animals? Should I or shouldn’t I get rid of it? And yet I didn’t have the heart to discard it.
While I was vacillating whether or not to include this odd-one-out statue, I was listening to various preachers doing their regular Sunday televised church services. It seemed that this pandemic has produced a surplus of TV stations who have turned to broadcasting church services belonging to different denominations, each with their own version of Christianity.
I don’t know why -- maybe because I was holding the elephant -- but somehow these differing views reminded me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The parable itself originated in India, Javed’s homeland, and has been adapted by many religions and cultures.
There are many variations of the story with the same theme. Here is one:
A long long time ago in a remote village in ancient India there lived six blind men. One day they overheard fellow villagers talking animatedly about a carnival coming to town. The main attraction was a huge elephant which was going to be paraded through the main street. All six blind men had heard stories about elephants. Because none had a clear idea what an elephant looked like, they argued for hours and hours about it.
The parade arrived and the elephant paused in front of them.
The first blind man rushed to touch the elephant’s foot: “An elephant is like a trunk of a tree,” he cried out.
The second blind man moved forward and touched the elephant’s tail: “It’s like a broom!”
The third blind man, the tallest among them, touched an ear: “It’s like a giant fan!”
“It’s like a spear!” the fourth blind man yelled as he touched the ivory tusks.
The fifth blind man reached out and touched the torso: “It’s like a wall!”
The sixth one held up his hand and touched the elephant’s trunk: “It’s like a big snake!”
Having experienced what an elephant looked like, the six blind men sat by the roadside to share with the others what a real elephant was.
“An elephant is like the trunk of a tree.”
“No, it is like a broom. Let’s agree on that.”
“Of course not. It is like a giant fan.”
“You’re wrong. It is like a spear. Surely we can finally agree on that.”
“You’re all mistaken. It is like a wall.”
“Absolutely not. It is like a snake.”
Mutually irritated and exasperated, they almost came to blows because none could agree what an elephant looked like.
An old wise man of the village broke up the fight.
“Each of you is right and wrong at the same time,” he said. “You! How can you be too sure your opinion is the only correct one? How about you, and you, and you. Each one of you touched only one part of the elephant. Put these parts together, and you will know what an elephant looks like!”
While I ponder on this parable, I cannot help relating this to the different ideas people share about the nature of God.
Some say He is mean and judgmental.
Others say He is All loving.
Some others say He grants us our wishes if we only asked Him.
Still others say He is absent and never around especially when we need Him the most.
So many opinions, so many ideas. Each time I watch and listen to the different church services on TV, every pastor, priest or preacher has a different message. Which preaching is right?
I think our individual experiences are limited and so are our perceptions. I think we are only seeing a narrow band of the whole spectrum. Unless we recognize this, I’m afraid we will get lost in a wilderness of arguments.
One day in future time perhaps we may have a more complete picture of reality than we have today. At the present time, however, I see myself as still trying to fit ourselves into a large jigsaw puzzle. Some of us are working in the middle of the board, others in one corner, while some others in the other end.
The moral of the parable is not to be too attached to one tiny corner of the board lest we miss the forest for the trees. It takes humility to admit that many pieces have not yet been filled out. It takes wisdom to admit that for now, we see through a glass, darkly, as the Apostle Paul succinctly put it.
The elephant reminds us of the one reality that we only partially see. It teaches us the importance of looking beyond ourselves, and especially of listening to others. Only then would we recognize how very much alike we are in our deepest experiences of God’s Love.
I am convinced that the best way to know the true nature of God is by looking at Jesus -- by examining, His character, His actions, His speech, His life, as epiphanies to reveal to us who God really is.
The old wise man who revealed to the blind men what an elephant really looks like symbolizes Jesus. It was Jesus who showed us who God really is. That is why He was born. That is why we are celebrating His Holy Birthday next week.
For it is through Him that we can fully realize the total picture of God’s Love.
“Are you done yet?” My wife calls from the dining room. “Dinner’s getting cold.”
I position my elephant figurine right next to the crib. There’s your place, I tell the elephant, the belen completed and all aglow. That’s where you belong from now on. Javed was right about you. You’re the proverbial elephant in the room so obvious yet so invisible even as you keep reminding us to love one another as Jesus loves us, regardless of our denomination. But now that you’re there, nothing can stop us, in spite of ourselves, from greeting each other:
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.