Sunday, 16 December 2012

Away in a manger

Hello, God.

Is it Spring soon?  In the last week we've had subzero temperatures, heavy frost, treacherous ice, torrential rain and high winds. Today is dank and dreary. Spirits are in need of a lift, please. 

I know, I'm not going to spend the next few months complaining about begin cold and unstable (on my feet, I mean) until the first green shoots show their faces. I'm not, really. 

Well, it's the shortest day soon so a small celebration is in order, don't you think? Not that I'm ungrateful for wintry days where it's so cold that my chin gets left behind and I can't stay upright. No, not at all. 

Not much, anyway. 

I've had a good weekend, thank you. Church this morning was good; our little nativity, under-rehearsed and beset with dodgy microphones and howling PA but lovely and touching and heartwarming as always. The Christmas story, told with a tableau of small children, choreographed manfully by hardworking Sunday school leaders. 

So simple. My two girls were angels (again! Got great value out of that angel costume. I reckon it's been used at four nursery nativities, four church ones, one at school and a couple of parties, and is only slightly unravelled in the wing department). They sat looking somewhat bemused and largely unsmiling on a bench at the back of the tableau but their Mum and Dad were proud of them nonetheless.  Of all the congregation only we know how incongruous a pair of halos are on my daughters! Only joking. Well, a bit. 

The Christmas story is so familiar, isn't it? I mean familiar to us. I can't count the number of nativities I've seen or been involved in or heard about in church, in schools and in playgroups and nurseries.  The shops are full of costumes - Mary, Joseph (usually interchangeable with the shepherds), Wise men, even stars, cows, donkeys and camels. Many a doll or new baby have played the title role and little girls always want to be Mary and sit looking suitably serene. 

The two smallest,
most bemused angels are my daughters.
So familiar that I send Christmas cards with a nativity scene on (if I can find them in the shops among the snow-scenes and robins and Santas). All the plays and tableaux and advent calendars and so on just wash over me because I'm so used to them, and then one day there's something that stops me in my tracks. This weekend it was the home-made manger on the stage in church with a bundle of hay in it and an elderly Tiny Tears doll. 

I have no idea how accurate a representation of the Holy Manger this one was, but it's roughness and simplicity and unsuitability for a real baby struck me as something new.

When my girls were born I had all the stuff that you need when you're going to have a baby. I had a small wardrobe full of tiny clothes (mostly in yellow and white as we didn't know if we'd need pink or blue), nappies, wipes, baby oil (what exactly was that for? I don't think I ever knowingly used baby oil and yet I must have been given a dozen bottles, some of which I still have), muslin squares, toys, mobiles, baby type sleeping bags and the softest of soft blankets. And that brings me to the cot. 

Our cot was pale wood, varnished with a clear lacquer that was considered safe and suitable for babies, with a plastic protective bit over the top to stop the remote possibility of splinters where tiny gums might gnaw as teeth emerge. The side lowered in a convenient way so that no discomfort was caused to my back as I bent to pick up the baby. The cot had a sprung mattress with a chemical-free waterproof fabric coating and then a couple of warm, brushed cotton fitted sheets to make it snug and comfy. 

When I was kitting out our nursery cot bumpers were not considered the thing to have for health and safety reasons but I know many people then and now position soft and pretty padding all round the cot so that baby won't bump his head and is even cosier. My baby was swaddled in the softest of baby blankets for a few months and then when a little older she slept in a custom made sleeping bag. I monitored the room temperature carefully and adjusted her tiny, well-fitting sleep suits and vests accordingly. A jungle animals mobile in pastel colours dangled over her cot and when we wound it up it played a soporific little tune (that was never particularly successful in inducing sleep but nonetheless sounded nice). Stuffed toys were arranged all around the perimeter of the cot and the room was tastefully decorated with 'Elizabeth Lucy' and two years later 'Katherine Emily' on the walls, a chest of drawers just for her things and changing mats and accessories all co-ordinated. We had everything.

That was how my child came into the world. 
No crib for a bed

Yours was born in a stable and slept wrapped in a cloth on top of a bundle of uncomfortable straw in an unhygienic feeding trough for animals, in a cold, grubby and draughty stable, surrounded by smelly cows and sheep. 


Now, my daughters are very special to me, and to a few other people too, but they are distinctly human. They may be children of God in one sense, but not the actual, factual sense. Your son was born into circumstances that were beyond normal - he was positively poor. I imagine that even in those Biblical times not many children were born in a stable. When I was small I used to sing, 'no crib for a bed' and think that the word 'crib' meant money in the olden days and Mary and Joseph didn't have any cash for a decent bed. Well, the idea has merit, I think, but it isn't quite what it means. You didn't have any of the home comforts, did you, Lord?

The Son of God came to earth in such a way. I've heard the nativity story over and over and yet the little wooden manger in our church play brought home to me the truth of it. You certainly did lay aside your majesty. The King of Kings, the Lord of all Creation, tiny and vulnerable and human. 'No crying he makes'? - I bet you did cry. You must have been prickled by the hay even if you were OK about the cows peering at you and wondering where their dinner was. I bet Mary had a nightmare trying to settle you sometimes. 

And then there's Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, giving birth in such a cold, uncomfortable, inappropriate place for something so personal, so difficult, so scary, so momentous. It's a Big Thing when a woman has her first baby - how much more when the mother is a virgin, no more than a child herself and the baby the Son Of the Most High?  Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus' birth was any different from any other birth - it was probably painful and messy and risky and undignified, and to do it without any health and safety advice or gas and air or glucose tablets or towels and hot water, or the benefit of a midwife and a bath and a comfy bed, or even your own Mum - this was basic, wasn't it. 

You wanted it that way. I cannot fathom it, other than that you wanted to demonstrate that you were fully, fully human. You came to us without any of the benefits of the world and with no advantage. You related to the lowest, poorest, most unsophisticated. You were really one of us.

Lord, it amazes me. So much does. So much that I take for granted then my eyes open for a moment and I see something and it amazes me. You showed me. You made the earth and everything in it. You understand all that there is to understand. You are there outside time, looking back on history and forward to the end of the story; you are the beginning and the end and you are the Almighty God, and you arrived on earth in such a simple, understated way that many, many might have missed it. 

I don't want to miss it, Lord. I want to see and understand and marvel. God become man. A tiny baby in a stable more than two thousand years ago, born to a young girl and a simple carpenter without fanfare or news flash. An eternal door opened up wide, light flooded out and heaven and earth saw each other clearly for the first time. 

The world changed beyond imagination on that day; history hinged, and yet most of the population of the world went about their business without any inkling. Without sensing the shift. 

Without understanding that nothing would be the same again.

The angels, however - I bet it was a different story. 

 'Sing, choirs of angels
Sing in exultation
Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above
Glory to God in the highest
Oh come, let us adore him
Christ, the Lord'

Amen.  God with us. The new story was beginning.

Edited and reposted from December 2011. They were angels again this year, they were still bewildered, it still moved me to a little tear, and the PA played up just the same. Thankyou, Lord. 


  1. You couldn't get a bigger contrast, from King of the Universe to poor baby lying in hay. It's incredible.

    1. I know. Can't get my head round it. Thanks for reading and commenting, Fran.

  2. This really brings the whole Nativity down to earth - exactly as it should be. What a wonder it is indeed that God Almighty, our Lord Jesus Christ, should start His life on earth in such a humble way. Though such was the pattern of His living and dying. Such amazing love!
    I really appreciated this reflection on a very natural/Supernatural event. You made me see it afresh with the eyes of our own culture and socitety's expectations and preparations to receive our own offspring into the world, contrasting vividly with the manner of Jesus' birth. Thanks, Helen.

    1. Thanks so much for the encouragement, as always, Joy. You are so generous.

  3. Love it! And "Choirs of angels sang"...? Poetic license, of course! And though not in the Word, I still love the thought, because the Bible doesn't say angels don't sing!!

    1. Thankyou Mel! I'm quite sure that the angels were making a joyful noise that day. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  4. Beautiful post and it leaves me with a song of praise in my heart. Thank you.

    1. Me too. Thankyou for your kind words, Cathey.

  5. I finally got around to following your sorry for my delay. I love that you said, "No crying he makes...I bet you did cry." Yes, I bet he did. Thank you so much for all of your comments. I love to hear what you have to say and I look forward to follow more faithfully. I hope you have a wonderful C-mas and there is nothing wrong with cherishing your children in a play about Jesus. I am deeply reminded of how Jesus really came into OUR world. Thank you!

    1. Dionne, no worries - thankyou so much for coming and for your encouragement. Looking forward to connecting more in the New Year!

  6. Yes, I too don't want to miss it - don't want the busy-ness to rob this season of the deep, deep meaning of God becoming one of us - and being laid in a manger. Thank you for this. Blessings, Amy

    1. It's so easy to let it slip away. I get a glimpse of the wonder and I stop in my tracks and then it slips through my fingers as I get distracted. I'm praying that 2013 will be a year where I miss a little less. Thanks for your kind words, Amy.

  7. Your writing made me see it, smell it, hear it. That God would entrust Himself to us in such a completely vulnerable way is amazing, startling. May we not get swallowed up in the secularized season, but remember that this is the time to remember God!

    1. Amen, Sherry. Thankyou for all your encouragement and kind words. Here's to 2013!

  8. I leave a nativity out all year. I have willow tree angels praying all around (people have given them to me). I am reminded how I need to stop throughout my days and reflect on what I have been given. I truly have LIFE! Thanks for that reminder in your post. So much is so different for so many people this year, so glad God's love never changes and the picture of the nativity should remind us of that! Thanks happy new year!

    1. Eva what a good idea. God isn't only with us on 25 December until the decorations come down. And especially now it's worth remembering that He is with us all the time, through good times and bad.
      Thanks so much for coming and leaving a comment. It means a lot.


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