“And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 1:7, NRSV)
“Away In A Manger”
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.
After amusing myself by titling the last two Advent and Christmas posts in Spanish, I was going to tile this one in French, a language that I am more fluent in, something like: “Mes pensees sur le temps de l’Advent et le jour de Noel – lesson trois”. (1) But the title I did use, encompasses much of what I want to say. (2)
But first, doubtless, after my last post (12/ /14), you are wondering how Jack Lewis, the Balding Bible Study Dog (BBSD), and I are doing. A little while ago, Terry, sounding righteous and clean, announced that she was going out to a church worship service. Of course, the Balding Bible Study Dog, and the Bible study teacher, would have liked to go, if we could. But disability, our labors, dear reader, on this post, and a silly no dogs-in-church policy, precluded our attendance. Naturally, our thoughts turned to our nocturnal miseries of the previous night: the cold, the perspiration under the blanket, dry eyes from the cold and the heater, Jack’s allergies causing his right eye to run and the difficulty we had in getting the blanket back over us after Jack would go to get a drink of water. About 3:30 a.m., I jumped up and landed awkwardly on my right foot, the one that had had the recent surgery; I was afraid I had sprained my ankle (no worries, it’s OK now). “Ouch! ouch! ouch!”, I yelped. “Hey! That’s the sound that prey makes!”, Jack said suspiciously. Just kidding! Of course! Jack didn’t say that. Actually, Jack, the canine predator in our pack, said, “I have a joke you could tell on our blog. Question – ‘What does prey say?’ Answer – ‘Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!’ Ha, ha, ha.” “Very funny, Jack.” The BBSD is primarily responsible for the humor and illustrations in our blog. Well, after getting me started, Jack Lewis, the BBSD, has moved off to pursue other interests. So, let’s get started, shall we?
We are thinking, during Advent, of the Incarnation, a theological word; but an earthy and gritty reality. Incarnation = to enter flesh, to become flesh; and of course, flesh = meat (“That’s great writing!”, exclaimed Jack Lewis, momentarily intrigued.). You can hear the word echoed in the Spanish words, chili con carne, that is, chili with meat. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14a, NRSV) The Word, God, the second member of the Trinity, the Creator: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5, NRSV)
Surely when the Creator entered creation and “became flesh”, took on a mortal, fallible body, a great explosion occurred! But actually, the Word made flesh that entered our world through a small opening in time and space, was hardly noticed by the geopolitical world. The Word came among poor and oppressed people in a backwater of the Roman Empire. The event was noticed by the parents, Joseph and Mary, of course, and some of Mary’s family; and some shepherds, almost the lowest class of first century society; and a paranoid, homicidal King, who was a half Jewish, traitorous client of Rome; some astrologers from “the East”; and perhaps a few others. No coin was minted or postage stamp issued, in honor of the birth of the King of the Jews and the Lord of creation. In a 24/7 cable TV news cycle, the birth of Jesus would probably not even merit a short human interest segment.
Why then does this event explode within us, and overwhelm us with wonder and awe, even still today? Because the Son of God became the Son of Man that the sons (and daughters) of men might become the sons of God; because Jesus came to die so that we might live forever; because Jesus who knew no sin became sin for us on the Cross, so that we who are sinful might become righteous, clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ; because when the Light of the World slipped into our dark world, the invasion of this demon-dominated world began, and nothing has been quite the same since, and we his troops, disciples, agents are living increasingly in the blessings of the Kingdom of God, and the light from the future Dawn shines more and more upon us because the New Day is almost here.
When I was a child and we bought seed packets, I always chose the miscellaneous exotic wild flowers packet. Against instructions, I planted the seeds too close together, fearing that otherwise, the plants would take forever to grow and be unobservable. Predictably, the plants eventually choked each other to death. Until I got a MAC, I used to worry about having too much material on my computer, even after installing an extra memory stick.
Is it possible to lack room for something or someone in our bodies or souls or minds? Of course spiritual and mental realities take up no physical space at all (contrary to some of my professors). But is there a spiritual and an intuitive sense of not having enough room to receive something of great importance into our lives? Yes, there is. Let’s look at a few biblical examples.
In Jesus’ parable of the four kinds of soils (hearts), one of the soils where the seeds were sown contained thorns “that grew up and choked them” (Matt. 13:7, NRSV). Here is Jesus’ interpretation: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth choke the word and it yields nothing.” (Matt. 13:22, NRSV) “Cares of the world”, worries about practical, mundane things, and “the lure of wealth” can choke out the word of the Gospel and other important words. At our last Thursday evening Bible study, someone brought up the Bible’s warnings about get-rich-quick schemes and wondered about how they apply to our lives today. It is good to gather wealth steadily, by doing work that provides what people want (and ideally need). Looking for a windfall tends to crowd out everything else, until this “urgent” activity is finished, and of course it’s never finished. I am extremely skeptical of offers of wealth that require huge amounts of time, crowding out that which is really important, like God, family, Jack and planting seeds for the kingdom of God.
A similar idea can be seen in 1 Peter. Christians are reminded that, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23, NRSV) “That word is the good news that was announced to you.” (1 Peter 1:25b, NRSV) When we are exhorted to, “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.” (1 Peter 2:1, NRSV), presumably we understand that malice, guile, insincerity, envy and slander are incompatible with the seed of the word of God planted within us, and will, when present, crowd out that word. Also, note that the love of the world can crowd out the love of God: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:16, NRSV)
You see where I am going with this. It is possible also, to fail to make room in our hearts to receive Yeshua (Jesus): “He was in the world, and the world was made through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God [that is, born from above or born again – see John 3:1-16].” (John 1:10-13, NRSV)
Christians, and even whole congregations, can fail to make room for Yeshua, to receive and welcome him. That is the meaning of the passionate call of Jesus: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20, NRSV)
Stay with me; there are more take-aways to come. Have you noticed that many children’s rhymes and fairy tales have a dark side or at least a bit of an edge? Our civilization seems to have had an instinct that children in the world we live in, need to be prepared for danger, challenges, and especially death. “Now I lay me down to sleep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.” Whoa! The child is given a nightly reminder that he or she might die in sleep, might not wake up. Or remember these examples: “Rock A Bye Baby” raises the specter of an infant in her cradle placed in a tree top, so that any gust of wind will cause the baby to fall from a great height; and “Ring Around the Rosie”, which was created to teach children, during the Bubonic Plague of the European Middle Ages, how to recognize plague sores. The fairy tales that the Grimm Brothers collected and initially published, often were very dark, with horrifying endings.(3) In subsequent 19th century editions, they sanded off the rough edges and gave the tales happy endings. Now, of course, the tales have been Disneyfied. But the 2005 movie, “The Brothers Grimm”, and the current NBC television series, “Grimm”, certainly emphasize the dark side of these tales. This brings us to the carol at the beginning of this post, “Away In A Manger”.
“Away In A Manger” is a very popular carol in the English-speaking world; according to the Gallup Poll, in 1996, it was tied for the second most popular Christmas song in Britain. It’s authorship has been attributed to the great German reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546), and known as Martin Luther’s Lullaby. However, Martin Luther is almost certainly not the author. The first known publication of the carol was in “The Myrtle” (1884), a publication of the Universalist Publishing House in Boston, MA. It was published as just the first two stanzas, which have a safe feel, with no edges, and no mention of death, as one would expect from the Universalists who deny the Trinity, hell, and many other orthodox doctrines. The one particularity that appears is, “no crib for a bed”, which equals “no room…in the inn” (KJV), and points to “laid him in a manger”. The following stanzas appeared, one or two at a time, over the following decades, under the auspices of more mainstream Christian denominations. Notice in stanza three, the “Lord Jesus no crying he makes”, which led some to charge the stanza with Gnosticism, that is Jesus wasn’t truly human (the orthodox formula is “fully human and fully God”). In stanzas four and five the true bedtime children’s lullaby becomes clearer. Note the sentiment in stanza four, “stay by my bedside until morning is nigh”, which parallels the sense of nighttime danger in the children’s prayer, “if I should die before I wake”. And finally in stanza six, death appears, albeit the positive aspect, that is, heaven. The “if I should die” concern of the children’s prayer is unstated, but it hangs all over the last three stanzas. The carol/lullaby is saved for me by “fit for heaven”, which could include a lifetime of discipleship to Jesus, increasing mirroring of Christ, and even a saving faith in what Jesus did for us in his life, death and resurrection; and the final phrase, “to live with Thee there”, at least acknowledges that we are made to know God in Jesus, not just to have a thin happiness, however we choose to define it.
As we head down the home stretch, I take from “Away In A Manger”, several themes: 1) I acknowledge that I still need Jesus to care for me, and “all the dear children”, until “morning is nigh”. 2) I make no apologies for noting the relevance of pondering death at Christmastime, really anytime. Any worldview, philosophy, religion, or attitude toward living, that does not deal truthfully and helpfully with the problem of death, considering the predicament we find ourselves in, does not deserves my allegiance. I agree with St. Paul: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:19, NRSV) 3) The place where the carol touches down in the historical record, “no crib for his bed”, “no room…in the inn” is an implicit challenge to us every Christmas, indeed everyday.
Joseph and the pregnant Mary were set on the road, with much of the Empire, because of the kind of news that does get reported: The Emperor made a decree that everyone should return to their ancestral towns to be registered. Can you imagine the chaos that would be set in motion by such a decree today? And so Mary and Joseph arrive in their ancestral home: Bethlehem, the town of King David, the town where the Messiah was to be born. With all the travelers in town, there was “no room for them in the inn” (KJV). There was a stable, some say it was a cave. In today’s terms they were placed in the parking garage of the Motel 6. There was no crib for Jesus, but there was a manger. It was not like the wood frame structures that are typically seen in Christmas pageants, which helpfully contain the straw for the comfort of the child. No, it was more like the stone manger pictured above, which could contain slop, water and grains without losing them on the ground. A manger is a food trough. I know something about this: both sides of my family were farmers/ranchers. The smell of cattle eating in the barn is pungent and overwhelming. Whether in the barn or in the pasture, watch your step! While we are at it, the “swaddling clothes” that Jesus was wrapped in, according to the KJV Bible can sound to us much too pretty; I mean it is not like going to K-Mart: “He’s much too young for a jumper; he’s not even walking; we need swaddling clothes”. “Bands of cloth” (NRSV) captures the makeshift nature of the arrangements.
Is there a more hospitable place in our lives for our Lord Jesus? Is there room in our hearts for him? As much room as he desires? Or are our hearts crowded with worry, anxiety, greed, malice, envy, insincerity, self-centered focus or “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches”? One thing is certain: where the Lord Jesus is known, experienced and welcomed, there is JOY, for he is Love, and the Laughter at the Heart of All Things (I think I made that one up myself)! Moreover, wonder of wonders, he wants to be with you (Rev. 3:20)! Our mission this Christmas: “Let every heart prepare him room” (the carol, “Joy To The World”). I’m thinking about the chorus from an original Christmas song by The Violet Burning, “Room in My Heart (a Christmas Song)”:
There isn’t any room in the inn;
There’s room in my heart.
There isn’t any room in the inn;
There’s room in my heart of hearts.
Wait! Did you hear that? I think it’s for you… “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
(1) Sorry, my English keyboard does not have the French accents. Notice I personalized it a bit: ‘mes’ instead of ‘les’?
(2) This theme will remind some readers of the classic booklet by Robert Boyd Munger: “My Heart – Christ’s Home” (Inter-Varsity Press, first edition – 1954, revised edition – 1986). My point though, is slightly different.
(3) The Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales include: “Cinderella”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Snow White”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Rapunzel”, Rumpelstiltskin”, “The Frog Prince”, and many others.
This post was powered by the CD, “Divine 3.0 – Songs for Christmas” by The Violet Burning, the CD, “Songs For Christmas” (2014) by Branches, and the CD, “Brutal Romantic” (2014) by Brooke Fraser.