the littlest manger
just the other night, i lifted baby jesus out of his tangle of old, old shredded papers. mary, too. and joseph, who carries a lantern the size of a fat grain of basmati.
for all the commotion of what it took to get to them–the ladder that falls from the attic had to be pulled, which meant all the boxes in the hall upstairs had to be moved, then i needed the tall one to help haul down the big cardboard box, the one marked “bam merry christmas,” and while i was at it, i noticed the attic needed some shuffling of stuff, which meant that by the time i climbed down the creaky stiff ladder, the one with the joint that might be arthritic, what with its resistance to bending and the complaining it does, i was chilled to the bone–anyway, for all that preamble, i have to admit my holy little family just might be a bit, um, underwhelming. a bit easy to miss.
you might be here in my house, say, for a christmasy moment, and you might walk right past the three little people, time after time. mary herself is no bigger than the tip of my pinkie. the babe in the bed, maybe as big as one orzo pasta. no longer or wider.
it’s odd, then, perhaps, that i so deeply needed them hauled from the attic. it’s not like they’re commanding whole stretches of real estate. not like the mantle is theirs and theirs only.
as a matter of fact, they are tucked right on the ledge of a bird house i hauled home from a farm just last summer. tossed it in the back of a pickup, watched it bounce down a long country road. it’s a birdhouse built to look like the church on the top of the hill in that sweet farmer town, and i think, now, it’ll be the perch for my holiest littlest family.
i was practically hungry, you might say, for the three tiny folk to get out of the box where i lay them each year, come january, when it’s time to put away christmas.
i was hungry in that way when your soul is silently growling. like a tummy needs soup, only your soul needs sustenance too.
now that little manger, for something 99 folks out of 100 would walk right past, not notice, is, like all symbol in life, packed with a wallop of meaning to me.
it is my whole christmas distilled. it is, eensy as it is, the essence of a very long journey. and this year, i’m thinking, i’ve made it back home.
what i mean is it tells a story, the story of how a catholic, one who once saw the hand of God everywhere, one who once watched, through spread fingers and tears, as the face of Jesus up on a cross in a faraway chapel kept changing and changing right before my eyes—a Kodak slide show, i called it, a miracle really i thought, of all kinds of faces, black and brown, wrinkled and gray, a dozen or so, a true tour of the world, all in faces, a miracle that spoke to me in the certainest words: find God in each face–it tells the story of how that catholic married a jew.
a jew, by the way, who is deeply observant, who bore his own heartache at the fact that he married outside of the tribe. outside of the lines, he colored his life.
the question that’s posed, and answered, in that small wood-carved trio is this: how in a home–how in the sacred space you build only on trust, and faith in each other’s capacity to move beyond what you’ve known all your lives–how do you weave the christmas that means everything with the one that always was cast as a threat to your people, your race, and religion?
well, i started small. i started on tiptoes.
there is no place in my heart or my home for bombast or noise. certainly not trickery. i am appalled when i read–as i did just a week or two back in the new york times–of interfaith families who use christmas and hanukkah as some sort of weapons, a tug-of-war rope to see whose holiday is left standing, and whose falls.
oh, lord, no. i did not marry a man i love, i did not nosedive out of the safe zone to whittle away my life playing holiday games.
and so, amid a whole carton of hand-me-down wooden carved angels and shepherds and even a platoon of brass-playing penguins, long long ago, i moved back the tangle of old paper shreds, and there lay baby jesus, a toppled joseph and upturned mary, as well.
i remember catching my breath, gasping, and staring at the sweet little family. i lifted each one in my palm.
i knew then, that very first christmas, that i had a creche i could softly, quietly, tuck off to the side. wouldn’t ruffle a feather. wouldn’t stir, not even a mouse.
the fact of the interfaith journey is that–if you are paying attention, if you are listening closely to what many on both sides are saying–it can be a long arid road. you might spend a few years in the desert. you might fall on your knees, night after night, praying one thing: dear God, keep the pilot light lit. don’t let it snuff out.
the fact of the interfaith christmas is you need to be gentle. need to listen with very big ears to the layers of history. you need to know that a tree isn’t only a tree. a tree was, likely, the one thing that separated you from all of your neighbors. you were proud of that fact. it meant, you believed, you were the people God chose. it meant, too, you were the people painfully persecuted. by the catholic church as well as the nazis. at separate times, in separate ways, but persecuted nonetheless.
never once have we not gotten a tree. my husband, God bless him, has joyfully carried one home, year after year. last year, he grabbed the fattest one on the lot. frasier fir, too, the best that there is in the christmas tree business.
a creche, though, i feared, might be pushing a little too far. so i joyfully settled my heart into the littlest one that came in the box.
it’s always been my own little christmas. my devotion was quiet, was whispered, was in the deep of the night. or when everyone else in the house had magically vanished, and i was alone.
it carried me through years of not knowing. for a few years there, i listened intently to all the talk of the historical jesus. my ironclad knowing that Gospel was Gospel had been shaken, and shattered. i was left holding little but shards.
christmas came all those years. and i clung to my littlest manger. my manger that didn’t get in the way, that no one needed to notice. but that held me, rapt.
this year, not long ago, i somehow, without even feeling the climb, got to the summit. i realized the power of story, regardless of provable fact.
i don’t need to know if someone far, far away and long long ago can prove the steps and the words of a man we say was born in a manger.
in the utterly simple, deeply profound truth of the matter, i took in the whole christmas story for the power of its infinite metaphor: a babe born in a barn; the unlikely virgin mother; the carpenter guardian; the chorus of barnyard critters; the innkeepers who hadn’t a room; the bright shining light in the heavens; the shepherds and journeying kings.
for a minute there i thought maybe i needed to go get a creche bigger than the tips of my fingers. thought really it’s time to not tiptoe.
but then, i lifted my littlest manger from out of the box. and i realized how perfect it is for a christmas i believe in with all of my heart: it is christmas condensed to its delicious, delectable best.
it is christmas in whispers. it is a babe born in the night. it is a savior whose very first cry was let out in the straw of a barn. it is the lord, greeted by shepherds.
and that is a story i am blessed to call mine.
do you have a something you lift, every year, from a box? a something that brings back all the whispers and echoes of christmases past? do you find that each year, as you retell the story, it takes on new layers of meaning? it grows as you grow? i do understand that not every house melds such layers and strands, and i do try to make this a table with places for all. but maybe in some thread of this story you heard, or you felt, a bit of your own. your musings this christmas, if you don’t mind….
i’m still feeling my way here, in terms of when i meander. i do think i’ll be back with a blessing for christmas. stop by here, whenever you’ve time. the words–and my heart–will be waiting.