the manger seen

According to the stories,
all around the world, people set out a crèche each year
as part of St. Francis’ legacy.
It was he who first envisioned
the beauty
of its simplicity and meaningfulness.

The slowly unfolding story,
as we assemble its chronology,
consists initially of just the stable—
an empty manger, ox and ass.
We add the two (Mary and Joseph).
Then there are three (welcome, baby Jesus!).
Joined by shepherds, who come and go (with sheep).
Later by magi, also coming and going (with gifts and camels).

Everyone actually, coming and going—right?
This was no one’s home.
No one ever came back to this stable.
Maybe Jesus as an adult,
“Now Mom and Dad said it was around here somewhere!”

And we tend to image the scene
in isolation, don’t we?—
alone on the altar table, as a living manger tableau,
alone on the mantel, under the tree,
alone in the yard,
alone on a card,

abstracted from the inn with no vacancy—
from the crowds of people
in town obedient to Caesar’s decree—
in town so there was no room at that inn.

We image the scene, separated,
in our imagery and our minds,
from all around it.

Now I can only imagine that St. Francis,
who saw all in relationship to all
(brother sun, sister moon, brother wind, sister water),
abstracted the scene from its anonymity—
blew the front wall off the stable,
put the family front and center—
more outside the stable than inside it—
I can only imagine St. Francis
isolated the scene
to reveal it
in its startlingly,
unexpected relation to all around it.

But imagine this year a stable
you don’t notice—
hardly see at all—
let alone the family inside it
hidden behind roof and walls—
behind an inn,
anachronistically next to an abandoned mill,
by a factory belching smoke into the sky,
with skyscrapers looming behind it—
office lights on—
in the midst of a busy district
full of restaurants, stores, and hotels—
neon signs and brightly colored advertisements—
and a dark street full of deserted buildings
with boarded up windows and doors—
churches on most every corner.
Imagine a manger in a stable
amidst it all—
with a star
high above
all but obscured in the light and smoke.

What if we sang:
“Away in a manger obscured from plain view,
the little Lord Jesus did make his debut.
His birth went unnoticed except by a few—
the truth of our God who thus starts all anew.”

The affirmation of Christmas—
the celebration of incarnation—
that there is no separation—
that precisely in the anonymous midst of it all—
even in the anonymity of our own living—
deep within our own private hiddennesses
of pain and shame—loss and regret—tears and fears,
God is born
to bind all to all in redemptive relation
with the promise of hope and peace, joy and love.

Merry Christmas!


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