Saturday, December 24, 2022

Let Us Be That Stable—A Murfin Verse Christmas Tradition

A depiction of St. Francis of Assisi laying the babe in the manger for his living nativity scene in 1223.

Note—We interrupt our Christmas Eve announcement carols for this chestnut from the Old Poet.

On Christmas Eve it’s time to reflect on a treasured part of the Christian celebration of the Nativity.  And a certain obscure poet finds modern meaning in its symbolism.

In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi is said to have made the first recreation of the birth scene of the baby Jesus 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. 

A Renaissance three panel altar painting of the Nativity.

Soon the scene was being reproduced in religious art, both paintings and 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 with skeletal or broken walls, the participants garbed as peasants and 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 twenty years ago.  I used the classic 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 worships setting since. 

A 125-year-old church nativity made by master sculptor, Konrad Rabbels of Kevlaer, Germany on display at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum in Union, Illinois There are 27 figures with the largest being 40 inches tall. The crèche spans 15 feet.

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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