Now winter downs the dying of the year, And night is all a settlement of snow; From the soft street the rooms of houses show A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere, Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin And still allows some stirring down within.
These sudden ends of time must give us pause. We fray into the future, rarely wrought Save in the tapestries of afterthought. More time, more time. The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow. ~Richard Wilbur from “Year’s End”
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light: The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind For those that here we see no more; Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife; Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease; Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be. ~Lord Alfred Tennyson “Ring Out, Wild Bells”
I know there are still communities where the New Year begins at midnight with church bells ringing, just as in days of old.
Here in the frontier of the rural Pacific Northwest, all we can hear from our farm are gun shots, bottle rockets and (what sounds like) explosions of cannon fire and mortar shells.
So much for larger hearts and kindlier hands.
Even without being able to hear wild bells ringing out the old and ringing in the new, I want to begin the new year with singing in harmony, mending the frays in the tapestry of time, behaving with good manners and care for those around me, and abandoning a thousand years of war to find a thousand years of peace.
Let the darkness make room for the Light that was and is and will ever be.
Amen and hallelujah!
I will sing with the spirit Hallelujah, hallelujah
And I will sing with the understanding also Hallelujah, hallelujah
I will sing (I will sing) With the spirit (sing hallelujah) I will sing with the spirit Hallelujah, hallelujah
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Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation. Luke 2:29-30 (Simeon’s Song)
Cards in each mailbox, angel, manger, star and lamb, as the rural carrier, driving the snowy roads, hears from her bundles the plaintive bleating of sheep, the shuffle of sandals, the clopping of camels. At stop after stop, she opens the little tin door and places deep in the shadows the shepherds and wise men, the donkeys lank and weary, the cow who chews and muses. And from her Styrofoam cup, white as a star and perched on the dashboard, leading her ever into the distance, there is a hint of hazelnut, and then a touch of myrrh. ~Ted Kooser “Christmas Mail”
the utterly unexpected a star, a light, a voice shakes us awake opens our sleepy eyes interrupts familiar routines as
our hearts tremble, muscles tighten; do we run to prepare for battle or do we freeze in place?
the animals also rustle and stand up- confused like us
they see the exploding sky and yet they sense no threat but instead merely listen,
huddled together for warmth as unearthly music fills their ears.
we quickly make plans to see this great thing, a revelation- word has become flesh and we have been invited to catch the first glimpse. ~Steve Bell “First Glimpse”
…Grant us thy peace. Before the stations of the mountain of desolation, Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow, Now at this birth season of decease, Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word, Grant Israel’s consolation To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow. According to thy word. They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation With glory and derision, Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair. Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer, Not for me the ultimate vision. Grant me thy peace. (And a sword shall pierce thy heart, Thine also). ~T.S. Eliot from “A Song for Simeon”
Simeon had waited and waited for this promised “first glimpse” moment of meeting the Son of God face to face, not knowing when or how, not knowing he would be able to hold him fast in his arms, not knowing he would be able to personally bless the parents of this holy child.
He certainly could not know this child would be the cause of so much joy and sorrow for those who love Him deeply.
That sword of painful truth pierces into our soul, opening us with the precision of a surgeon under high beam lights in the operating room where nothing is left unilluminated. We are, by the birth of Jesus, bared completely, our darkness thrust into dawn, our hearts revealed as never before, no matter who we are, our place of origin, our faith or lack thereof.
God is an equal opportunity heart surgeon.
It is terrifying, this mountain of desolation, all cracks and crevices thrust into the light. And it should be, given what we are, every one of us.
We wait for this incarnate God, longing and hungry for His peace. We are tired, too tired to continue to hide within the darkness of our troubles and conflict of our sin. We, like Simeon, are desperate for a first glimpse of the promise of His appearance dwelling with us, when we can gather Him into our arms and He gathers us into His, when all becomes known and understood and forgiven.
His birth is the end of our death, the beginning of the outward radiance of His peace, and wide open to all who open themselves to Him.
Light upon Light.
Based on Psalm 74: 12 Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia.
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Big Foot, a great Chief of the Sioux often said, “I will stand in peace till my last day comes.” He did many good and brave deeds for the white man and the red man. Many innocent women and children who knew no wrong died here. ~Inscription on the Wounded Knee Monument
I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, — you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead. ~Black Elk, (wounded trying to rescue his people after the Wounded Knee Massacre) from Black Elk Speaks
From today’s The Writer’s Almanac:
December 29 is the anniversary of themassacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-three years earlier the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land. The treaty said that not only could no one move there, but they couldn’t even travel through without the consent of the Indians.
But in the 1870s gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889 a native prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to leave and return the land that belonged to the Indians. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. People traveled across the plains to hear Wovoka speak, including emissaries from the Sioux tribe, and they brought back his teachings. The Ghost Dance, performed in special brightly colored shirts, spread through the villages on the Sioux reservation and it scared the white Indian agents. They considered the ceremony a battle cry, dangerous and antagonistic. So one of them wired Washington to say that he was afraid and wanted to arrest the leaders and he was given permission to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt. The next on the wanted list was Sitting Bull’s half-brother, Chief Big Foot, known to his own people as Spotted Elk. Some members of Sitting Bull’s tribe made their way to Big Foot and when he found out what had happened he decided to lead them along with the rest of his people to Pine Ridge Reservation for protection. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia on the way.
Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was a peaceful man. He was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn’t make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot’s band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek. Big Foot went peacefully.
The next morning federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot. Even though it wasn’t really a battle, the massacre at Wounded Knee is considered the end of the Indian Wars, a blanket term to refer to the fighting between the Native Americans and the federal government, which had lasted 350 years.
One of the people wounded but not killed during the massacre was the famous medicine man Black Elk, author of Black Elk Speaks (1932). Speaking about Wounded Knee, he said:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream.”
Like most twentieth century American children, I grew up with a sanitized understanding of American and Native history. I had only a superficial knowledge of what happened at Wounded Knee, a low hill that rises above a creek bed on the South Dakota Pine Ridge Reservation, gleaned primarily from the 71 day symbolic standoff in 1973 between members of the Oglala Sioux and the American Indian Movement and the FBI, resulting in several shooting deaths.
Nine years ago, when our son was teaching math at Little Wound High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation, we visited the site of this last major battle between the white man and Native people, which broke the spirit of the tribes’ striving to maintain their nomadic life as free people. This brutal massacre of nearly 300 Lakota men, women and children by the Seventh Regiment of the U.S. Army Cavalry took place in December 1890.
The dead lay where they fell for four days due to a severe blizzard. When the frozen corpses were finally gathered up by the Army, a deep mass grave was dug at the top of the hill, the bodies buried stacked one on top of another. The massive grave is now marked by a humble memorial monument surrounded by a chain link fence, adjacent to a small church, circled by more recent Lakota gravesites.
Four infants survived the four days of blizzard conditions wrapped in their dead mothers’ robes. One baby girl, only a few months old, was named “Lost Bird” after the massacre, bartered for and adopted by an Army Colonel as an interesting Indian “relic.” Rather than this adoption giving her a new chance, she died at age 29, having endured much illness, prejudice in white society, as well as estrangement from her native community and culture. Her story has been told in a book by Renee Sansom Flood, who helped to locate and move her remains back to Wounded Knee, where in death she is now back with her people.
There is unspeakable desolation and sadness on that lonely hill of graves. It is a regrettable part of our history that descendants of immigrants to American soil need to understand: by coming to the “New World” for opportunity, or refuge from oppression elsewhere, we made refugees of the people already here.
As Black Elk wrote, the dreams of a great people have been scattered and lack a center. He was not only speaking of his own tribe, but was presciently speaking of our current divisiveness – due to extremism, we lack “a center” in our current governmental discourse.
We must never allow hope to be buried at Wounded Knee nor must we ever forget what it means to no longer be safe in one’s own homeland.
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Here, the bells are silent, blown glass hung from branches of pine whose fragrance fills the room. It’s December, and the world’s run out of color. Darkness at five seems absolute outside the nine square panes of glass. But inside hundreds of small white lights reflect off fragile ornaments handed down from before the war. They’re all Shiny-Brite, some solid balls— hot pink, lime green, turquoise, gold—some striped and flocked. This night is hard obsidian, but these glints pierce the gloom, along with their glittery echoes, the stars. We inhale spruce, its resinous breath: the hope of spring, the memory of summer. Every day, another peal on the carillon of light. ~Barbara Crooker, “Bells” from Some Glad Morning
The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.
We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need —not all the time, surely, but from time to time— to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us.
The name of the room is Remember— the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived. ~Frederick Buechner“A Room Called Remember”
In 1959, when I was five years old, my father left his high school agriculture teaching position for a new supervisor position with the state. Our family moved from a large 3 story farm house in a rural community to a 1950’s newer rambler style home just outside the city limits of the state capitol. It was a big adjustment to move to a much smaller house without a basement or upper story, no garage, and no large haybarn nor chicken coop. It meant most things we owned didn’t make the move with us.
The rambler had two side by side mirror image rooms as the primary central living space between the kitchen on one side and the hallway to the bedrooms on the other. The living room could only be entered through the front door and the family room was accessed through the back door with a shared sandstone hearth in the center, containing a fireplace in each room. The only opening between the rooms had a folding door shut most of the year. In December, the door was opened to accommodate a Christmas tree, so it sat partially in the living room and depending on its generous width, spilled over into the family room. That way it was visible from both rooms, and didn’t take up too much floor space.
The living room, because it contained the only carpeting in the house, and our “best” furniture, was strictly off-limits for us kids. In order to keep our two matching sectional knobby gray fabric sofas, a green upholstered chair and gold crushed velvet covered love seat in pristine condition, the room was to be avoided unless we had company. The carpet was never to develop a traffic pattern, there would be no food, beverage, or pet ever allowed in that room, and the front door was not to be used unless a visitor arrived. The hearth never saw a fire lit on that side because of the potential of messy ashes or smoke smell. This was not a room for laughter, arguments or games and certainly not for toys. The chiming clock next to the hearth, wound with weighted pine cones on the end of chains, called out the hours without an audience.
One week before Christmas, a tree was cut down to fit in the space where it could overflow into the family room. I particularly enjoyed decorating the “family room” side of the tree, using all my favorite ornaments that were less likely to break if they fell on the linoleum floor on that side of the door.
It was as if the Christmas tree became divided, with a “formal” side in the living room and a “real life” face on the other side where the living (and all that goes along with that) was actually taking place.
The tree straddled more than just two rooms. Each year that tree’s branches reached out to shelter a family that was slowly, almost imperceptibly, falling apart like fir needles dropping to the floor, soon to be swept away.
Each year since, our Christmas tree, bearing those old ornaments from my childhood, reminds me of that still room of memories. No longer am I wary of the past, and as I sweep up the fir needles that inevitably drop, I no longer weep.
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A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15
…as you sit beneath your beautifully decorated tree, eat the rich food of celebration, and laugh with your loved ones, you must not let yourself forget the horror and violence at the beginning and end of the Christmas story. The story begins with the horrible slaughter of children and ends with the violent murder of the Son of God. The slaughter depicts how much the earth needs grace. The murder is the moment when that grace is given.
Look into that manger representing a new life and see the One who came to die. Hear the angels’ celebratory song and remember that sad death would be the only way that peace would be given. Look at your tree and remember another tree – one not decorated with shining ornaments, but stained with the blood of God.
As you celebrate, remember that the pathway to your celebration was the death of the One you celebrate, and be thankful. ~Paul Tripp
God could, had He pleased, have been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape him. Of His great humility He chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane. Otherwise we should have missed the great lesson that it is by his will alone that a man is good or bad, and that feelings are not, in themselves, of any importance. We should also have missed the all-important help of knowing that He has faced all that the weakest of us face, has shared not only the strength of our nature but every weakness of it except sin. If He had been incarnate in a man of immense natural courage, that would have been for many of us almost the same as His not being incarnate at all. ― C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis
There is no consolation for families of those lost to death come too soon: a rogue king’s slaughter of innocents, and now so much needless death: weather, war, accidents, random shootings, COVID.
Arms ache with the emptiness of grief, beds and pillows lie cold and unused, hugs never to come again.
There is no consolation; only mourning and great weeping, sobbing that wrings dry every human cell, leaving dust behind, which is our beginning and our end.
God came to us for times such as this, born of the dust of woman and the breath of the Holy Spirit, God bent down to lie in manger dust, walk on roads of dust, die and be laid to rest as dust to conquer such evil as this that displaces masses and massacres innocents.
He became dust to be like us He began a mere speck in a womb like us
His heart beat like ours breathing each breath like ours until a fearful fallen world took His and our breath away.
He shines through the shadows of death to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
He hears our cries as He cried too. He knows our tears as He wept too. He knows our mourning as He mourned too. He knows our dying as He died too.
God weeps as this happens.
Only God can glue together what evil has shattered. He asks us to hand Him the pieces of our broken hearts.
We will know His peace when He comes to bring us home, our tears finally dried, our cells no longer just dust, as we are glued together by the holy breath of our God forevermore.
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye bye, lully, lullay. Thou little tiny child, Bye bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do For to preserve this day This poor youngling for whom we sing, “Bye bye, lully, lullay?”
Herod the king, in his raging, Chargèd he hath this day His men of might in his own sight All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor child, for thee And ever mourn and may For thy parting neither say nor sing, “Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
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As once a Child was planted in a womb (and later, erected on a hill, a wooden cross) one year we dug a hole to plant a tree. Our choice, a Cornus Kousa with its fine, pink, four-petaled bracts, each curving lip touched with a red as deep as human blood. It rooted well, and every year it grows more glorious, bursting free in Spring—bud into full flower, flame-colored, flushed as wine. Even the slim sapling’s roughened bark speaks of that tree, nail-pierced and dark. Now, each new year, fresh blossoms shine radiant, and each cross-blessed, as if all love and loveliness has been compressed into a flower’s face, fresh as the Son’s new-born presence, a life only just begun.
The dogwood leaves turn iron red in Fall, their centers fully ripening—into small seeded balls, each one a fruit vivid as Mary’s love, and edible. The sciontree, once sprung from Jesse’s root, speaks pain and life and love compressed and taken in, eye, mouth, heart. Incredible that now all Eucharists in our year suggest the living Jesus is our Christmas guest. ~Luci Shaw “Dogwood Tree” from Eye of the Beholder
God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer from God Is in the Manger
I ponder the paradox of Christ, the Son of God, coming to the world through the womb of a woman, born homeless in order to bring us home with Him.
The uncontainable contained the infinite made finite the Deliverer delivered the Eternal dwelling here and now already but not yet.
As only one child of many of the Very God of Very God, (He is and was and always will be) I am cross-blessed to realize my life feels fresh-born – only just begun – yet we all have been known to the Creator from the start of time.
(If you are interested in hearing an old old story about the dogwood tree in song, and you don’t mind old-timey honky-tonk music, there is this….)
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Now, newborn, in wide-eyed wonder he gazes up at his creation. His hand that hurled the world holds tight his mother’s finger. Holy light spills across her face and she weeps silent wondering tears to know she holds the One who has so long held her. ~Joan Rae Mills from “Mary”in Light Upon Light
Now burn, new born to the world, Doubled-naturèd name, The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame, Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came; Kind, but royally reclaiming his own; A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east… ~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “The Wreck of the Deutschland”
Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:78-79 (Zechariah’s Song)
It never fails to surprise and amaze: the dawning seems to come from nowhere.
There is bleak dark, then a hint of light over the foothills in a long thin line, followed by the appearance of subtle dawn shadows as if the night needs to cling to the ground a little while longer, not wanting to relent and let us go.
Then color appears, erasing all doubt: the hills begin to glow orange along their crest, as if a flame is ignited and is spreading down a wick. Ultimately the explosion of Light occurs, spreading the orange pink palette unto the clouds above, climbing high to bathe the glaciers of Mount Baker and onto the peaks of the Twin Sisters.
~Dayspring to our dimness~
From dark to light, ordinary to extraordinary. This gift is from the tender mercy of our God, who has become the Light of a new Day, guiding our feet on the pathway of peace.
We no longer need to stumble about in the shadows. He comes to light our darkness.
Merry Christmas today to all my Barnstorming readers and visitors!
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ~John 1:5
Sleeping child, I wonder, have you a dream to share? May I see the things you see as you slumber there? I dream a wind that speaks, like music as it blows As if it were the breath of everything that grows.
I dream a flock of birds flying through the night Like silent stars on wings of everlasting light. I dream a flowing river, deep as a thousand years, Its fish are frozen sorrow, its water bitter tears.
I dream a tree so green, branches wide and long, And ev’ry leaf and ev’ry voice a song. I dream of a babe who sleeps, a life that’s just begun. A word that waits to be spoken. The promise of a world to come. ~Charles Bennett “Sleeping Child”
Oh little child it’s Christmas night And the sky is filled with glorious light Lay your soft head so gently down It’s Christmas night in Bethlehem town.
Chorus: Alleluia the angels sing Alleluia to the king Alleluia the angels sing Alleluia to the king.
Sleep while the shepherds find their way As they kneel before you in the golden hay For they have brought you a woolly lamb On Christmas night in Bethlehem.
Sleep till you wake at the break of day With the sun’s first dawning ray You are the babe, who’ll wear the crown On Christmas morn in Bethlehem town.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. “Now they are all on their knees,” An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen, Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. So fair a fancy few would weave In these years!
Yet, I feel,If someone said on Christmas Eve, “Come; see the oxen kneel,“ In the lonely barton by yonder coomb Our childhood used to know, ”I should go with him in the gloom, Hoping it might be so.“ ~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”
Says a country legend told every year: Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see what the creatures do as that long night tips over. Down on their knees they will go, the fire of an old memory whistling through their minds!
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold I creaked back the barn door and peered in. From town the church bells spilled their midnight music, and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh the heretics! Not to remember Bethlehem, or the star as bright as a sun, or the child born on a bed of straw! To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on – citizens of the pure, the physical world, they loomed in the dark: powerful of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas! And you are no heretics, but a miracle, immaculate still as when you thundered forth on the morning of creation! As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me. Caught in its light, listening again to its story, I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me the best it could all night. ~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem”from Goodness and Light
The winds were scornful, Passing by; And gathering Angels Wondered why
A burdened Mother Did not mind That only animals Were kind.
For who in all the world Could guess That God would search out Loneliness. ~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B. “The Stable”
Beholding his glory is only half our job. In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; we are not really Christians till that has been done. A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice— animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid— and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God. ~Evelyn Underhill“Light of the World” from Watch for the Light
Growing up on my childhood farm, remembering the magic of Christmas eve night, I bundled myself up to stay warm in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.
At midnight we knew the animals knelt down, speaking words we could all understand, to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town, in a barn, long ago in a far away land.
They were there that night, to see and to hear, the blessings that came from the sky. They patiently stood watch at the manger near, in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.
My trips to the barn were always too late, our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep, our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate, in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.
But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again! They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens, in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.
Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve, in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time. Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.
Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near, that tells me the time I hope for is now, they will drop to their knees without any fear in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.
I wonder anew at God’s immense trust for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night – the mystery of why of all places, His Son must begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right. ~Emily Gibson “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)
Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come. ~Jane Kenyon, from “Let Evening Come”
Latin text O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum. Alleluia!
English translation O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord, Jesus Christ. Alleluia!
Sing O the wild wood, the green holly, The silent river and barren tree; The humble creatures that no man sees: Sing O the wild wood.
A weary journey one winter’s night; No hope of shelter, no rest in sight. Who was the creature that bore Mary? A simple donkey.
And when they came into Beth’lem Town They found a stable to lay them down; For their companions that Christmas night, An ox and an ass.
And then an angel came down to earth To bear the news of the Saviour’s birth; The first to marvel were shepherds poor, And sheep with their lambs.
Sing O the wild wood, the green holly, The silent river and barren tree; The humble creatures that no man sees: Sing O the wild wood. John Rutter
Jesus our brother, strong and good Was humbly born in a stable rude And the friendly beasts around him stood Jesus our brother, strong and good “I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown “I carried his mother up hill and down I carried his mother to Bethlehem town” “I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown “I, ” said the cow, all white and red “I gave him my manger for his bed I gave him my hay to pillow his head” “I, ” said the cow, all white and red “I, ” said the sheep with curly horn “I gave him my wool for his blanket warm He wore my coat on Christmas morn” “I, ” said the sheep with curly horn “I, ” said the dove from the rafters high “I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I” “I, ” said the dove from rafters high Thus every beast by some good spell In the stable dark was glad to tell Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last. ~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat
Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak… With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. ~Thomas Merton from Watch for the Light
As a physician, I’ve provided care to many homeless people, but I’ve never known homelessness myself. However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.
It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.
We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.
By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.
They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.
Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.
The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.
So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.
Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. A stable and its stone manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact and feeling welcomed.
There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus One) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.
With all the material distractions of our age, it is small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell amid our messiness, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our being, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.
And that is, of course, a place where there is always plenty of room.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. You has got a manger bed. All the evil folk on earth Sleep in feathers at their birth. Jesus, Jesus, rest your head. You has got a manger bed.
1. Have you heard about our Jesus? Have you heard about his fate? How his mammy went to the stable On that Christmas Eve so late? Winds were blowing, cows were lowing, Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain
2. To the manger came the Wise Men. Bringing from hin and yon, For the mother and the father, And the blessed little Son. Milkmaids left their fields and flocks And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain
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Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God ~Elizabeth Barrett Browning from “Aurora Leigh”
(Jesus said) I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Luke 12:49
It is difficult to undo our own damage… It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. ~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk
When I drink in the stars and upward sink into the theater your words have wrought, I touch unfelt immensity and think— like Grandma used to pause in patient thought before an ordinary flower, awed by intricacies hidden in plain view, then say, You didn’t have to do that, God!— Surely a smaller universe would do!
But you have walled us in with open seas unconquerable, wild with distant shores whose raging dawns are but your filigree across our vaulted skies. This art of yours, what Grandma held and I behold, these flames, frame truth which awes us more: You know our names. ~Michael Stalcup “The Shallows”
I need to turn aside and look, to see, as if for the first and last time, the kindled fire that illuminates even the darkest day and never dies away.
We are invited by name, by no less than God Himself, through the burning bush that is never consumed to shed our shoes, to walk barefoot and vulnerable, and approach the bright and burning dawn, even when it is the darkest midnight, even when it is a babe in a manger lighting a fire in each one of us.
Only then, only then can I say: “Here I am! Consume me!”
Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away. Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away. ~Taize
I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were, with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair. I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see. For still there are so many things that I have never seen: in every wood in every spring there is a different green. I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago and people who will see a world that I shall never know. But all the while I sit and think of times there were before, I listen for returning feet and voices at the door. ~J.R.R. Tolkien
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