Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Annual Christmas Post—Let Us Be That Stable

It’s Christmas Day and time to reflect on the Christian religious origins of this holiday with traditions borrowed from pagan times and which has been overlaid by more than one secular celebration. 
In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi is said to have created the first recreation of the birth scene in a cave near Greccio in Italy.  He was inspired by a recent trip to the Holy Land.  It was a living Nativity tableau, with people representing the Holy Family, shepherds, Magi, and angels and live animals, including an ass and an ox for realism.  The custom quickly caught on and spread across Europe. 
Soon the scene was being reproduced in religious art, both paintings in sets of figurines to be displayed in the Nave of a Church or, eventually, in the manors of the wealthy.  By the early days of the Renaissance the scene was somewhat standardized.  Instead of St. Francis’s Grotto, the birth place was usually portrayed as a stable, often with a thatched roof and skeletal or broken walls, the participants garbed as peasants’ or lords of the day. 
It is this familiar scene, often erected in religious homes, and adorning countless Christmas cards that most of us have firmly in our mind when we hear a reading of the Biblical nativity story.
With that in mind, I composed a poem for a Christmas Eve service at what was then still called the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock, Illinois more than ten years ago.  I used the classical crèche as a metaphor for the Congregation.  The poem was included in my 2004 collection of poetry, We Build Temples in the Heart and has frequently been used in Unitarian Universalist and other worship settings since.  

Let Us Be That Stable
Today, let us be that stable
            Let us be the place
            that welcomes at last
            the weary and rejected,
            the pilgrim stranger,
            the coming life.

Let not the frigid winds that pierce
            our inadequate walls,
            or our mildewed hay,
            or the fetid leavings of our cattle
            shame us from our beckoning.

Let our outstretched arms
            be a manger
            so that the infant hope,
swaddled in love,
may have a place to lie.

Let a cold beacon
            shine down upon us
            from a solstice sky
            to guide to us
            the seekers who will come.

Let the lowly Shepard
            and all who abide
            in the fields of their labors
            lay down their crooks
            and come to us.

Let the seers, sages, and potentates
            of every land
            traverse the shifting dunes
            the rushing rivers,
            and the stony crags
            to seek our rude frame.

Let herdsmen and high lords
            kneel together
            under our thatched roof
            to lay their gifts
            before Wonder.

Today, let us be that stable.

--Patrick Murfin

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