Here is the last lope around the track of Blog Entries of Christmases Past. Today’s remembrance comes from 2010…in two days begins a new year and then a new blog entry. As the Christmas decorations start coming down we have a little time left to contemplate the work of the Christmas season…
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
I played through this piece the other night and sang some harmony, remembering an arrangement of this I conducted when I had a church choir in Belmont, North Carolina at the Christmas of 1991. I was reminded, yet again, how when I am in
I am so very near
and this celebrated event. Since our campus was stilled I went back and googled
some information about this familiar hymn. It was written in 1883 to mark the
400th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. We sing this song so
often, if you are a Christian or not, it makes its way around in December, but
I realized we are no longer as shocked by the image as perhaps we should be. Bethlehem
Stop and think about the jarring imagery: a manger is made for animals, not humans. Babies belong in a cradle or a crib, made for tender nurture. But this baby Jesus lies in a manger—hard, harsh, filled with prickly hay. The song is sweet and gentle, but the reality was not. The word “manger” comes from the French verb manger, which means, “to eat.”
A manger was
a receptacle for animal feed. And
yet in God’s strange and unexpected ways, the manger becomes a precious vessel
that holds the Christ child. When the shepherds and the wise men come in search
of the announced savior, it’s not in a royal cradle, but in a humble manger
that they find him. Having attended a Lutheran church while I lived in New
York, I knew how powerful the symbol of the manger was for Martin Luther—that
was why it was written with him in mind. Luther used the image of the manger in
enlightening ways: in his writings he called the scriptures a manger, a feeding trough for believers; Luther
also called the congregation of the church as the manger in which the Christ
child is found. Congregation as manger?
What did Luther mean? I think what Luther wanted us to understand is that the
manger is not a place, but a people, an event. Where is that place from which we feed our souls? With whom we do we
feed our souls?
Of course at this time of year many congregations set up manger scenes on their grounds, but it begs the question, where is the real action of the manger? What is the responsibility of being the manger? Where does the real Christmas story take place?
I remember a marvelous sermon sometime in the early part of this century in New York in which the minister reminded the congregation, “Christmas isn’t really about the manger—it’s about the Babe.” She then quoted Martin Luther who said, “For not all mangers hold Christ and not all sermons teach the faith.” When we focus on ourselves, then we see cease to be a manifestation of the manger of Christ-like values.
This morning a very sweet 10th-grade girl stopped and asked me, “
Are you going home for Christmas?” The
question was everywhere in the air today with the ex-pats looking forward to
flights and time away from that proverbial Gerbil Wheel of School. I smiled and
said, “In all my years on earth, I have never missed Christmas at home with my
family in .
Never!” Since I have been in Cincinnati ,
this is my fourth year at King’s Jordan Academy,
going home is even more exciting than it ever was. I enjoy the work here, but I
miss the conveniences and my logic of my homeland. I miss the ability to jump
on a plane somewhere domestically and visit friends and family over a weekend
if I so desired. But I am very excited about this flight and time spent in . Cincinnati
In the footsteps of Christmas, when love comes into the world in the vulnerability of a child, when light pierces the darkness, and hope is born, when you think about it, as the poet wrote, the work of Christmas has only just begun. There is always that danger to sentimentalize the cuteness of the newborn child in that manger, rather than focus on the awesome mystery of the incarnation. When we look to the incarnation of God and the profound mystery of the birth of love into the world, then we can begin to change from expecting the worst to working toward something good. So from our kneeling place beside the manger, we slowly rise to our feet, and the miracle of this birth and the glow of this gift of love stay with us, lie within us, even as we slowly step back toward that cowshed door and out into the cold January air and to the world from which we came. We begin again in this new year with courage and joy and love to set about doing the work of Christmas in all the far away and forgotten places of our lives and in the world where people expect the worst.