Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Faith Works 12-15-07
Jeff Gill

Not So Far Away In a Manger

We have four manger scenes here at Sycamore Lodge. The Little Guy and Lovely Wife have arranged the Christmas décor just so, on the stair rail and in the windows and around the tree. Inside, we have a set of Nativity figures on the mantelpiece over the fireplace made by my great-aunts, a felt set that serves as an Advent calendar made by a lady at New Life Community for the children a few years back, and a molded plastic hinged scene in the basement.

But right by the front door, at the foot of the stairs where we come down each morning, and where you see it on Aunt Alice’s table from anywhere in the living room, is my mom’s family crèche. The simple lines of the stable were made by my grandfather, from wood out of an old barn behind a house where she lived as a child.

For the occupants, their origin is Italy, by way of the Sears catalog, made of some kind of hard rubber with handpainted detail that is remarkably durable for the mileage they’ve traveled over a half-century and more.

When I use this depiction of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as the focus for my morning devotions, I’m looking at signs and symbols drawing together almost the entire sweep of the Bible, not just a quick cut-and-paste job on Matthew and Luke’s respective second chapters.

Even the animals, the particular creatures found in almost every variety of manger scene, tell a story of prophecy and promise, from Genesis to Revelation.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah is the prophet most on the lips of Jesus the teacher, through all four Gospels in the New Testament. In the first chapter of Isaiah, when the son of Amoz recounts a vision he had of God’s promises coming to fulfillment, he says “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib.” Near the end of Isaiah’s work, in chapter 60, verse six, he says “a multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

So the “magi” of Matthew 2 have their place, but the camels carry their own symbolism, a fragrant part of the crèche scene.

Among the minor prophets, Amos was a shepherd, and in Micah, chapter five, we read his account of the Lord’s saying: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth. . .”

That woman in travail – some have asked why the lady Mary, having just given birth, looks so calm and bright. But Phillips Brooks, Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts a century and more ago, understood the meaning of that unruffled appearance of Isaiah’s “virgin” after bringin forth “Emmanuel, God-with-us.” He wrote in his lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” from an 1865 visit to Israel, the phrase “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

The implication goes back to Genesis, and the warning of God as Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden in disgrace, telling the woman that “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen. 3:16). A tradition of the church through the ages is that Mary was spared the pain of childbirth, though she would be pierced through the heart with pain over her son’s sacrifice (Luke 2: 35, echoing back to Zechariah), but clothed in blue and gold, and with the moon under her feet as promised in Revelation, chapter 12. The colors are in most nativity sets for Mary’s garb, while the moon at her feet and stars above can be seen in the Hispanic traditions around the Virgin of Guadelupe, celebrated last Wednesday on Dec. 12.

And in the tradition of Martin Luther, the words of “Away in a Manger” echo Mary’s calm and the same tradition, that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Thus do most manger baby Jesuses smile and almost laugh. As any parent of a baby can tell you, a smiling baby that doesn’t cry is indeed a miracle.

There is a element of the miraculous in every “presepe” (to you Italophiles), going back to the beginning where Francis of Assisi had the inspiration to take models, even real people in costume, to carry the story of the Christ Child from the printed page to flesh and blood. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible comes alive in every manger scene you see, as you pause to reflect, and marvel, and pray.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him your Christmas tale at knapsack77@gmail.com.

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