The Chance To Kneel

I’ve been thinking about that manger Christians revere at Christmas time. It is a remarkable scene, full of tenderness of a newborn baby, full of the harshness of a winter night, the smell of straw, blankets to cover the child and mother, the odd assortment of animals. And I ponder how this lowly, marginalized family, caught in difficult circumstances, has come to represent a new beginning for the world. And from a manger no less. It’s a mystery, isn’t it? We always lift up in awe the miracle of a baby born, but this baby, and this manger, have come to signal new birth for all of us, new beginnings, new hope. The whole scene spread out across the world with the dazzling speed of light. And from a lowly manger.

We must remember the surrounding world was not a happy place for this arrival. When news broke out that a new baby had come into the neighborhood—and some folks were talking about a new King, a new Lord, a long-awaited Messiah—the reigning king, the bloody Herod, ordered all baby boys under two years old to be butchered. How could this lowly manger stand up against such horrific power? What is it about this manger? People are still trying to get rid of these mangers in our midst.

The fourth-century Saint Jerome, deemed doctor of the church, wrestled with these questions:

As often as I look at the place where the Lord is born, my heart enters into a wondrous conversation with the Child Jesus. And I say, “Dear Lord Jesus, how you are shivering; how hard you lie for my sake, for the sake of my redemption. How can I repay you?”

Then I seem to hear the Child’s answer, “Dear Jerome, I desire nothing but that you shall sing ‘Glory to God in the highest’ and be content.

Something new happened here. Something from the lowly depths of history, something from a harsh winter and a bloody world. And what should be our response? Well, out of the mystery of it all, sing a new song, “Glory to God in the highest.” And then, the doctor adds, “be content.” Something has changed. Something happened here that changes everything.

I’ve always been fond of Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Oxen.” It is a poem about the manger, written in 1915 during WWI, one of the bloodiest wars in all of human history, the war to end all wars. In the midst of the gloom of those days, the poem thinks about this manger. It recounts a deep legend that even the animals kneeled before this new Child Jesus. For most intellectuals, and most people, these years were some of the most disorienting, disturbing, disruptive years anyone could imagine. All of Europe was in disarray. What could this manger possibly have to say in these hard times?

Well, on Christmas Eve, once again, Hardy returns to this mysterious manger:

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.

Well, there is vintage twentieth-century skepticism here. But does this lovely poem say “Glory to God in the highest”? It certainly recognizes the gloom “in these years,” and it takes that little swipe of doubt at the end. But doesn’t it still revel in the mystery? Isn’t there something here before whom we too might kneel?

So what about us? With our hard-edged, skeptical, desacralized view of the world, surely we too come to the manger “hoping it might be so.” We too, with our desire to eradicate all mystery from our lives, still come marveling at the mystery of it all. Something happened here that shines its light even into the gloom of our day. Yes, it’s a tender scene. Up against the awful powers that be, it seems fragile. And yet this lowly manger made all the difference. It asks only of us to believe it is so. And then to sing “Glory to God in the highest.” This manger changes everything. And we too get a chance to kneel.