Wednesday, December 12, 2007

. . . and watch them putting up this year's arrangement of the outdoor manger scene at:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

To illustrate the previous post; not that we have a life-size manger scene here at Sycamore Lodge! This one was made by St. Vincent Pallotti over 150 years ago, and still displayed each Advent in St. Peter's Square.
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

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 12-16-07
Jeff Gill

Sunrise From Days Gone By

Normally, he would leave for work this time of year before the sun was up.

He was used to tip-toeing around the scatter of toys and newspapers in the living room, quietly pitching his lunch into the cooler bag without turning on any more lights than the one inside the refrigerator.

Not a sound rose out of the sink other than running water, since he and his wife had strong and shared views about doing dishes before bedtime, going back to their separate but shared childhoods in homes filled with chaos.

You may not be able to clear every item off the floor with kids in the house, but you can at least wash up or load the dishwasher. He smiled in the dimness while he entertained that recurring thought.

A late night and a slow day ahead meant that he’d slept in, which meant 6:30 am today. Within minutes the kids would be up and turning on the Christmas tree lights and flipping the TV to some animated oddity. If he didn’t hurry, he’d be around for that activity, which he rarely got to experience. Whether he was there or not, the kids would look to Mom for breakfast and lunch money, so he could just be a cheerful observer, which was his plan.

The cheerful part took conscious effort, not because he wasn’t happy this pre-holiday week. Every year as Christmas drew near he wondered when he would feel the weight of Christmases gone by lift a bit, and maybe even fall away entirely.

The joy of his own children lightened his spirits no matter what, yet it always made him think about the young boy he had once been, living with his father in a shabby double, his mother gone almost before he could recall. There was something about shopping for gifts that made him think of the year, heading into middle school, when Dad gave him a six-pack of beer for Christmas. From Dad, that was a real gift, and it was a measure of the side of him that wanted to be a good father that he never, no matter what, asked for one of those beers, even the first few years when they stayed on the fridge shelf for weeks.

As he got older, the misguided gift continued year by year, along with valiant paternal attempts to find a wallet or belt or knife that would work as a Christmas surprise for a kid who never played with toys. Then it was college, and a beer sodden first semester, a near-death moment for a friend so drunk his lungs forgot to pump air, and then the awkward statement a week before Christmas when he got home: “Dad, please don’t give me any beer, because I don’t want to drink ever again.”

Dad didn’t argue, he recalled, looking out over the sink and into the backyard where a swing and sandbox and treefort looked almost oddly normal to him, even now. He just said “Well, we’ll see how long that lasts.” Other than a muttered “don’t know what I’m gonna get you now,” there was no complaint, and no further comment, even when a case of cream soda showed up next to his father’s usual case of beer.

They had three more Christmases like that, until the spring when a one car accident on the interstate took dad out of his life. There was never much curiosity about the why or the how of his choice not to drink, but he was grateful for the fact that there was not much grief about it either. He was already dating a woman he’d met at an Al-Anon meeting, and there was a tiny bit of relief swirled with guilt over not having to introduce her to the man who was the reason why he’d come to those meetings.

Right after they’d married, trying to build a world for themselves that began from nothing, they came to Christmas morning with not an empty fridge, but very near one. Not empty wallets, but near enough that going out and buying fancy food items was not in the picture.

So they went to Skip’s Big Boy, where they’d heard from the single lady in the apartment down the hall that Christmas dinner was served on the big day. They figured they could afford that, and walked over in a light snow.

Not only was it cheerful in a quiet way, not only did they hold hands right through the meal, talking of dreams that looked a lot like what the rising sun was revealing this morning, but when they went up to pay, the cashier said “Somebody already got you guys, and left your tip, too. Merry Christmas!”

As he thought about the walk back home, marveling at the possibility that the world had some good in it after all, there was a thunder on the stairs, and a shrieked “hey, my pick on the channel this morning.”

Then a tug at his pants leg, and the words “it’s not fair, dad. It’s my turn, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is, son. It’s not fair, and it’s your turn now. Let’s go talk about this.”

(Continued next week…)

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at