Christmas will be different this year, for most of us. No travel, no family gatherings. I don’t expect to have anybody at all in my house over the holiday period.
But I’ve put up some Christmas decorations anyway. Mostly, I guess, because I think Joan would expect me to, regardless.
Much of it was routine. Finding the boxes of Christmas stuff stored since last year. Digging out wreathes and streamers, reindeer and sleighs, little white churches that tinkle Silent Night…
And then I got to the creche, the traditional manger scene. Ours is eclectic, to say the least.
The core of the creche, of course, is the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. We bought those three figures long ago from the wood carvers in Oberammergau, the village in the Bavarian alps that puts on a world-famed Passion Play every ten years.
The three camels came from a shop in Jerusalem. We were assured they were carved of olive wood from the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane under which Jesus prayed the night of his arrest and trial.
But we didn’t have any Magi to ride in from the East on those camels. So I carved a set of three visitors myself. As a solid mass, blending into each other – as they do in the biblical text, too.
There are some carved wooden sheep – they’re traditional. Also a donkey made by one of our grandchildren out of a toilet paper roll wrapped with string.
Plus a variety of less conventional animals. A hippo, from Africa. A cow, or maybe a water buffalo, from India. An elephant from Thailand. A giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands. A ceramic penguin from Chile (I think).
And an Irish Setter, in loving memory of our first dog.
A universal story
No, they weren’t all there in the original stable in Bethlehem.
Neither were we. But we should be included too.
As the church has long taught, the birth of Jesus was more than a single isolated incident, happening in only one time and culture. It’s universal. That stable belongs everywhere, not just in Palestine.
British folklore traditionally believed that farm animals, even those in England far from Bethlehem, knelt in homage to the infant Jesus at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Poet Thomas Hardy was skeptical:
“So fair a fancy few would weave
in these years. Yet I feel
if someone said on Christmas Eve
‘come, see the oxen kneel …’
I should go with him in the gloom
hoping it might be so.”
If they can kneel, maybe they can talk. Don’t we sing of “the friendly beasts” describing their roles in the stable?
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn, “I gave him my wool for his blanket warm…”
“I” said the cow…
“I” said the dove…
“I” said the donkey…
None of which is biblical. So why not go broader?
We didn’t plan our creche to make a point about universality. But putting out the little carvings of our manger scene with its collection of many species reminded me, in this Covid-disrupted Christmas, that it’s not just about turkey and tinsel.
It’s about us. All of us. All of creation. Wherever it’s found.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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My story of the hitchhiker tugged at a lot of heartstrings, judging by the letters and oral comments I received.
“Thank you for sharing this story,” Florence Driedger wrote. “It is powerful. We don't need buildings, we need love and compassion for those who are alone. And we have so many things to be thankful for. We have joys of the past, the many positive relationships which have continued to flourish even during this time, renewed contacts, and a God who cares.”
Jayne Whyte also thought about the poor and vulnerable: “In these days when we are asked to stay home to protect ourselves and others, I am asking people to be kind. For the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph did not have a choice to stay home. They were traveling without a place to stay. And then fleeing for the safety of their child. That sounds like the story of too many people in our world. We all need resources from wise ones: Be kind, be generous with Love and Light.
“Thinking of you as you feel the loss of your loving wife in this season of remembering. Along with the changed traditions of a global pandemic.”
Randy Hall thought that “Your story of the young woman was wonderful. Do you wonder what happened to her and the child she bore? [JT: I wish I had followed up. I didn’t.]
“The story reminded me of an event in the church I pastored for 25 years. In the middle of a wedding, in walked a young woman and man. I noticed that she was pregnant and pretty far along. They were a sweet young couple hitchhiking southward and wanted help with shelter for the night. I told them of our community homeless shelter which would give them a warm meal and place for the night. They were delighted! I loaded them into my car, took them to the shelter, making sure that there WAS room at the inn. When I drove away they were waving at me and smiling.
“Every Christmas season I think of them -- a young couple expecting a child, landing in an unfamiliar town without a place to stay. Sounds familiar….”
Steve Roney took a different view: “I fear you have reversed the meaning of the Magnificat. Mary is not saying, as you misquote her, that she will scatter the proud or bring down the powerful. She says God has already done this. Not her, but God; and not in the future, but in the past. [JT: It’s hard to be sure of time, when biblical Hebrew had no tenses.]
“And her tone is the polar opposite of Helen Reddy’s in ‘I Am Woman.’ Reddy is aggressively boastful, saying, in essence, ‘I am God.’ The opposite of the Christian message, or any religious message.”
Bob Rollwagen: “A person in troubling circumstances sees a different life ahead of her. Such events she translates into a progressive opportunity.
“We hear of events like this regularly. It is easy to be kind and carry a light into every space you enter. Fortunately, this is the approach most want to take, work hard to create, and revel in their accomplishment, regardless of magnitude.”
Bob added a further paragraph, contrasting kindness with “leaders spreading hate and confusion under the illusion that it is the Christian thing to do.”
Isabel Gibson was philosophical: “Your story is another reminder that the people in the Bible were, you know, people. Some had brothers who came to untimely ends. Some had issues with their mothers. Some frittered away their youth and came to maturity with a crashing bang. Some were good singers. Some were smart-alecks. Some had the gift of the gab.
“They all had personal preferences and quirks. We lose that dimension, I think, in the stories we read.
“I hope your Mary found her way.” [JT: So do I.]
The lectionary offers the Magnificat and Psalm 86 as readings for this Sunday. I used the Magnificat last week, so I’ll go with the psalm this week. Please excuse the male imagery – when I wrote this, I was thinking of a mother I knew, looking at her grown son.
1 The miracle never ceases to amaze me, God--
this great galumphing galoot came out of me.
This is my tiny baby --
this, the next generation of my people.
2 Be with him, God, as you were with me.
3 You held my hand through the agony of child-birth;
through the trials of child-rearing, you stayed close beside me.
4 He's too big for me to carry in my arms any more, God;
carry him in yours.
19, 20 Long ago, you anointed David as king, when he was just a boy.
You picked Jeremiah as a prophet, before he was born.
You named Jesus as your own, before he was even conceived.
21 Bless my son too with your special care;
hold him in the palm of your hand as he ventures forth.
22 Do not let him fall into the hands of those who have no conscience.
Do not let him be mortified by his mistakes.
23 Clear a path for him through the pitfalls of modern life;
let him keep his faith in the decency of all he meets.
24 And God replies: I will always be with him.
From dewfall to daybreak I will wrap him in a blanket of love;
from sunrise to sunset, I will help him soar.
25 I will stay as close to him as the oceans to the shores;
I will flow in his veins.
26 I will be his loving parent;
he can always turn to me.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)