Come to the manger

Years ago, as a Christmas gift to myself, I memorized the Nativity account in Luke 2. I saw images I hadn’t seen since a child. My ears tuned to hear ecstatic praise in the night sky. I heard echoes—the pounding of the shepherds’ hearts, the thunder of their racing feet. I smelled earthy animal scents, and felt the fresh down of an infant’s silky hair under my wondering hand. This year, this puzzling COVID year, it’s time to go back, to remember what and who and why we celebrate, because while everything else we know may change, that won’t. Come…

…We’re standing in a stable. The air is ripe with the stench of fresh manure, the fragrance of unfettered hay. On a beam overhead, a mangy cat paces, eyed warily by a grizzled she-goat off to one side. A young girl with disheveled hair leans over a splintered, crooked manger. An older man is fussing over her. “Rest now,” you hear him say.

But our ears are filled with echoes. “Fear not…Good tidings…Unto you… a Savior…Christ the Lord!” and we must look in there, to see if the angels were right.

We step nearer, too close, too quickly.  The man starts forward, protecting whatever’s in the bottom of that tottering manger, but the girl smiles at us and holds him back with a small work-chafed hand. She has freckles. Good grief, she should be home helping her mother collect eggs from under the hens in the henhouse! She beckons, bends low, then rises, her hands no longer empty. Her eyes are twin ponds of joy—her whole face an unearthly combination of unashamed pride and naked vulnerability.

Is that a bundle of rags?  Impossible. Surely no rag bundle would be so carefully arranged, held so reverently, offered so eagerly.

We can refuse to look, you and I. Turn our backs and walk away. Go home, tell everyone it was a hallucination, a dream, a hoax—a legend. Criticize, come up with a better Christmas story. A red and green one, with a fat man, eight flying reindeer and a few chimneys. No angels, No manger. Definitely no baby. We never saw him, after all. We’re wiser now, more cynical.

But as the young girl extends her swaddled bundle, we step forward.  I don’t know about you, but a reef knot balls in the pit of my stomach, and my hands tremble. I’m eager to see if the angels were right, so afraid they may have been wrong.

Then the package makes a sound, like the cooing of mourning doves.  The cloths move. A tiny, perfect hand, fingers spread wide, pushes though the folds, gropes the air and grasps my pointing finger.

I will never be the same.

There’s only one thing left to do, I realize. Because it’s no good holding the Messiah, if I don’t first let this God-in-infant-flesh hold me. So I do it. Fall on my knees and worship.

And you?

Oh come let us adore him…Christ the Lord!