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.
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.
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
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
of every land
traverse the shifting dunes
the rushing rivers,
and the stony crags
to seek our rude frame.
Let herdsmen and high lords
under our thatched roof
to lay their gifts
let us be that stable.