God in a manger
There is a lovely little story for children – and for adults – written by Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes (some of you will have read), about his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland. This, however, is an earlier story about his mother Angela who, when she “was six years old… felt sorry for the baby Jesus in the Christmas crib at St Joseph’s Church…. She thought the Baby Jesus was cold and wondered why no one had put a blanket over his plump little body.”
She knew what it was like to be cold, and to be hungry, so she decided to steal the Baby Jesus to warm him up. She knew stealing was wrong, but “she had to take care of that poor little Baby Jesus before he turned blue with the cold altogether.”
He felt surprisingly stiff when she picked him up, but her focus was getting home without being caught. This involved – and she asked the Baby Jesus if this would be OK – throwing him over the fence into the backyard! Then – disaster! – her brother Pat saw her carrying the Baby Jesus up to her bedroom. (I also love the illustrations by Loren Long.)
“Mammy, Angela do have the Baby Jesus up the stairs.”
”Ah, now, Pat, love,” said his mother. “You have a great imagination. Sit there an’ have your tea.”
“She do, Mammy…. She have God in the bed, so she do.”
“All right, Pat. All right…We’ll go up and see…”
The whole family climbed the stairs and there, in Angela and her sister, Aggie’s bed, was the Baby Jesus. “Mother o’ God!” said …Angela’s Mother.
As you can imagine, more was also said, but the outcome was the whole family returning the Baby to the church, only to find the parish priest, Father Creagh there with a policeman, threatening arrest for the thief. “Who took him?” he said.
“I did. [said Angela] He was cold in the crib and I took him home to warm him up.”
The story resolves with her brother Pat pleading to arrested instead (“I love the Baby Jesus and I love my little sister,” he says)and with tears on the cheeks of the priest (and the policemen) and the child being returned to its place with the priest assuring Angela that his mother will keep him warm.
Though, thinking about the story, I think it is Angela’s response that keeps the Baby Jesus warm – her compassion to others and her kindness.
McCourt said in an interview before his death that his mother’s ‘umbrella virtue’ was kindness, and in this story, she responds to God’s great kindness – God coming into our world to be with us – with kindness. She responds to love with love.
It was love that inspired St Francis of Assisi (one Catholic saint we’ve adopted at this Baptist church with our Blessing of the Animals Service) to create the first ever nativity scene. Did you know that Francis invented the nativity scene? Concerned by the rampant greed and materialism in Italy at that time, he sought permission from Pope Honorius III to do something “for the kindling of devotion” to the birth of Christ.
He asked his friend, Lord of Greccio, Giovanni Velita, to prepare a cave with live animals and a hay-filled manger. According to his biographer, Brother Thomas of Celano, Francis desired to, “represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what he suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how he lay in manger between the ox and ass.”
And so, on Christmas Eve in 1223, people flocked to the hills outside Greccio to see the simple scene during Christmas Mass. This year is the 800th anniversary of that event and there were very special celebrations in Greccio.
At that first Christmas Mass it is said a miracle occurred. Celano writes:
A man was [given] a wondrous vision that night: he saw a child lying in the manger as though it were dead, but when St Francis came near it seemed to awaken to life. This vision was not meaningless, for had not the Child Jesus died the spiritual death of oblivion in many hearts, to be awakened to new life, and to reign forever in those hearts by God’s grace and the ministrations of St Francis? (Celano, Life of Francis)
Thinking about that story, I think it was Francis’s response keeping the Baby Jesus warm; his demonstration of Jesus’ simple birth, in a peasant home, among shepherds; and his call for more simplicity and compassion and generosity among Jesus’ followers.
St Francis urged Christians to respond to God’s great kindness with kindness. To respond to love with love.
This year in Bethlehem, there was a different nativity scene on display.
Anthea Snowsill, a member of our church, drew our attention to it in her Advent reflection on peace. Since she wrote that – tragically – the number of people killed in Gaza has exceeded 20,000, around 8,000 of whom have been children. This is why Rev Dr Munther Isaac, pastor of Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, says the churches of Palestine have cancelled Christmas celebrations this year.
Thinking about that story, Jesus under the rubble, born amid the rubble of all that is hateful and hurtful in our world, I wonder how we will keep the Baby Jesus warm?
Will we keep the Baby warm with our prayers? Will we keep the Baby warm with our compassion and our generosity to others? Will we keep the Baby warm with our efforts for peace and for reconciliation in every sphere of our lives? Will we keep the Baby warm with our courage, as Anthea mentioned in her reflection, to name and resist the evils of racism, imperialism, oppression even here in Australia?
Christmas, Rev Dr Munther Isaac said, is the solidarity of God with those who are oppressed. God coming into our world to be with us – a light of hope and resurrection and new life.
This Christmas let us respond to God’s great kindness with kindness. Let us respond to God’s love with love. “Love will be our token,” says the hymn. “Love be yours and love be mine. Love to God and love to all. Love for plea and gift and sign”
Prayers of Intercession
Holy God, be the light in our darkness and the darkness of our world.
As we have lit the candle of hope,
we pray for those who feel hopeless.
We pray for those facing great challenges in their own lives – in their work or relationships or their physical health or mental health. Keep us alert to those who need encouragement around us – who need a voice of hope.
We pray too for the great challenges of climate change. We think of those affected now, our friends in Tuvalu, and those who will be affected in the future, our children and grandchildren and we pray for change – good change in our lives and our communities – hope for the future.
Help us to be people of hope.
As we have lit the candle of peace,
we pray for all victims of violence.
We pray – O God we pray – for Israel and Gaza, and Russia and Ukraine, and the places in our world where it feels like death and destruction and enmity will never end. We know your peace is more powerful than any army or weapon and so we pray that you will arm the suffering (wrap them in your arms, God) with peace, and the peacemakers, and the leaders – that you will bring peace to our world.
As we have lit the candle of joy,
we pray for those whose hearts are weighed down by sorrow.
We bring to you all who are grieving in our church, who are gathering this Christmas without loved ones. We think of Marlene and Sandra and Val and Beth and Russell and Jean Daly and their families and the Henson family too – may their memories be memories of joy!
As we have lit the candle of love,
we pray for those who do not feel loved…help us to be a community that reaches out to others, people who reach out to others and create new bonds of friendship and family.
We give your thanks for love and friendship and how important they are to us – for the love that creates safe places for young people and old people to grow in – for the love that cares for the little ones being born into our community and for others who will become part of our community in the new year.
Holy One, be the light always,
that we reflect your light to our world. Amen.
~ written by Joanna Harader, and posted on her Spacious Faith blog (adapted).