AWAY IN A MANGER
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.”
These partial words to one of my very favorite Christmas carols when I was growing up have been attributed to Martin Luther, Charles Gabriel, & various other people, but today we do not really know who the author really was; however, I personally think God had something to do with it.
Oh, how I loved making the hand gestures while singing this song out of tune when I was a little girl! I think every generation for as long as I can remember has watched as their little children, decked out with towels on their head for headdresses, tiny little robes resembling those worn in Biblical times, & their very own baby dolls swathed in “swaddling clothes” to be representative of the Baby Jesus, has sung their own off-key versions of the song as they acted out the verses. The children shake their heads that there is no crib for a bed, lay their pressed together hands beside their faces to illustrate laying down His head, point upwards toward the stars to illustrate them shining up above, rock their arms mimicking rocking of a baby, etc. There is a hand motion for each sentence, & it is a fun song to sing with little children, as I have, in the past, taught children of all ages to sing it.
One of my favorite illustrations of this song involves my daughter, who is now a 24 year old married woman with a degree in Journalism who will hopefully not be embarrassed by the telling of this story, since she is also a writer. When she was 3 years old, her Mother’s Day Out teacher selected her to play the part of the angel for the Church Christmas program. Now, my vivacious daughter is a very outgoing young lady who does outstanding work in her Public Relations job, & who has won awards in college in the field of journalism, so she is far from a shrinking violet. But when she was a pre-schooler she was very shy, & so when they told me she was going to play a leading role I was skeptical about her apprearing onstage in front of stangers. But her teacher assured me that she was doing an outstanding job during rehearsals, so I agreed to allow her to accept the role. The appointed night arrived, & every pre-schooler enrolled in the program had what seemed to be not only their parents, but 2 sets of grandparents in attendance, along with neighbors, friends, aunts & uncles, etc., so the Church was standing room only. I proudly took my seat toward the front of the Church & waited in nervous anticipation for my chubby-cheeked cherub with her long, blonde, silky hair topped by a homemade halo to come & deliver her first onstage performance. Out they came, one by one. Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, Shepherds, etc. all marched onto the stage, & took their rightful places. Then came the angel, who took one look at all of the people, many of whom she had never seen before in her life, & she turned her back to the audience. The Angel who was supposed to deliver the line, “Fear not!” had turned her back in fear. One thing I will say, is that she was persistent. No amount of coaxing by her teacher or the music director could persuade her to turn & face her audience. This is an irony which, while it mortified me (not so much for me, but for my baby girl) at the moment, causes a fond & humorous remembrance today. But it also caused me to contemplate the events that took place on the original Christmas, & how frightened the real mother of Jesus must have been to not only have an angel appear to her, but to have to give birth in a stable of all things!
The depictions of this song by kids usually end by the actress who is portraying Mary carefully placing the “baby” into hand-fashioned, make-shift wooden “mangers”. How much thought have any of us really given to those surroundings? In modern society, where food is shipped in from thousands of miles away, & we can get fish “fresh from the Gulf” when we live hundreds of miles from that ocean, many people have never had even a small taste of farm life. Though my grandmother’s family were “planters” way back into the 1600’s in Virginia, she sold her portion of the farm as soon as she inherited it, so I never had to work on a farm. I do recall living the first few years of my life “out in the country” as City Folk would call it. Going with my Uncle to watch him slop his father’s pigs was a smelly, messy, but fascinating experience that I enjoyed witnessing, but certainly did not want to ever have to physically do myself. And one summer my cousins took me to visit their other grandparents who lived on a farm in Booneville, MS. One of my cousins was a year & a half older than me, & she laughed & laughed at me as I reservedly stepped around the cow paddies & timidly ran to the other side of the fence when the cow came over to see us! Then there is the story about how I went one dark, moonless night with some other teens from my Youth Group at Church to visit a so-called “haunted cemetery” which was located way out in the sticks. We parked the car, then crept, without benefit of flashlights, cell phone lights, or moonlight, out to the graves where we were greeted with low, guttural moans that sent me flying back to the car with the laughter of my friends, who knew that was a cow making noise, chasing me all the way back to the car. And some of my fondest memories of my grandfather entail helping him in his large garden. I loved the feel of the dirt in my hands as we planted & covered the cucumber seeds, the smell of the fertilizer we spread, & the itchy feeling of cutting okra without gloves. Farming & gardening are messy business that people who have never been around it may not understand. And that is what baby Jesus was born into – a noisy, messy, smelly barnyard.
This was brought vividly to my mind by authors John Bohrer & Joseph Stoutzenberger in a book I just started reading, titled, “Looking to St. Francis.” I have only yet read the first few pages of the introduction. I bought the book because, though I am not Catholic, I have been an admirer of St. Francis of Assisi’s work for a very long time. When I re-read his poem, “Let Me Be An Instrument of Thy Peace”, which I once had hanging on my refrigerator, & later on my filing cabinet, it is easy to see how he is one of Catholicism – & the world’s – favorite saints of all time. Recently, it came to my attention that he was known for being a little quirky, & how he once delivered a sermon to birds. (Yes! You read that correctly.) To me that is not such an oddity, because I believe that God speaks to us through nature, so I suppose it is all right for one to speak back. But what struck me in the introduction of this book about St. Francis Assisi is that, according to the authors, this Medieval Italian man was the originator of Nativity Creches, such as the ones the little children sing around, & adults act out Living Nativity scenes out in front of their Churches to draw in the people from their communities.
The authors of this book relate how St. Francis knew that words alone were insufficient. They remind us of how messy & smelly the manger is, & raise the question as to why Jesus was born into such circumstances. Then they supply us with the answer: “The circumstances surrounding his birth set the stage for where he’d be spending his time later in life – with lepers & sinners!” Then they tell us, ” Like the baby Jesus born in a stable, Francis – dressed in a patched & dirty robe – reminds us that holiness can be found in the commonplace, where we live most of our lives.”
How very fitting that I should stumble upon this book right & read those words right here close to Christmastime! But they are words that apply year around. Apparently St. Francis was, in his youth, known for being quite a partier. The fact that he was able to make an impact such that, hundreds & hundreds of years later, people are still talking about & quoting him, is remarkable, given that he was into hard living in his early years. In Francis’ own words, “I have been all thing unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” And He can do just that! He can work through you, no matter what your past, or what you have done. And let us not forget that, next time we hear a Christian criticize another Christian with words akin to this: “What is SHE doing hanging around THEM?!?” Or, “That is a crazy idea, that ministry will never work! No one has ever done THAT before!!” Or, “He is not a Godly man – he drinks, swears, curses, etc. He will never amount to anything!” When we hear these words, let us reflect & remember before we berate.
Let us remember how Jesus came into the world in those messy, dirty & smelly circumstances, & then later in life surrounded Himself with people who were deemed to be literally or figuratively messy, dirty, and/or smelly. Let us remember how St. Francis of Assisi was a partier who, though he was thought to be a reprobate who would never amount to anything, has inspired more people than most of the other saints. Let us remember that crazy sermon Francis preached about the birth of Jesus – the one where he dressed himself in a tattered robe, placed scratchy straw inside a bin, & brought an ox & a donkey to an unusual & unique altar just outside of town for Christmas Mass, to illustrate how holiness can be found in ordinary places, people & things. This altar was the very first Nativity Creche, & while there were most likely some people that thought the man who preached to birds must certainly have lost his mind for sur this time, he preached a sermon on the birth of Jesus whose echoes are still being heard hundreds upon hundreds of years later.
Yes, holiness can be found in the stable, amidst the partiers, the modern day lepers, & the sinners. But we must allow our senses to go past the smell, the filth, & the sounds & feel, truly feel the love that God has in His heart for each of those who are buried beneath the grime. They, too, can serve His purpose.
This Christmas, won’t you take a moment to close your eyes & really focus on that first Nativity setting? The cattle who were probably, like the ones in the field adjacent to that haunted cemetery, making those deep, guttural noises – did not exactly make the sounds one would hear in a modern day nursery. The hay must have been a harsh mattress beneath the swaddling clothes of a baby just delivered from the comfort of his mother’s womb. The stars in the sky, while beautiful, were indicative of the night air which would have been in stark contrast to the heated cubicles babies are placed in at the local hospital. The smell of manure permeated the air, instead of perfumed ant-bacterial sprays. Not exactly the ideal conditions into which to be born. But He came – gladly, willingly, lovingly, into the messes that men have created, to show us that, no matter how messy our situation, there is still hope for each & every one of us. And, should you, like St. Francis Assisi, find the Spirit leading you to preach a sermon to the birds, build an altar the likes of which has never been seen, or start a ministry that no one had thought of or heard of before, well, you never know – recalling Francis’ own words, if God can use a man like him, He can surely use you, as well!!
~ Lou Lehman Sams
Statue of St. Francis Assisi in a local cemetery