About ten years ago at our congregation’s Advent Workshop, we made four mangers. This was an activity for the “more active” children. We thought having them work with wood and nails would keep them occupied. So I drew up a pattern, purchased the materials, and stayed up late the night before the event sawing the wood into the correct lengths, and writing out careful instructions about how to assemble the parts. The next day, Bob, one of our congregation’s resident woodworkers, brought a selection of hand tools and supervised the construction.
As it turned out, we were right about the active children. They seemed to really enjoy the work of drilling and fitting together and fastening wood to wood. In the end we had four nifty little mangers, and many proud builders. I myself was quite pleased with how they turned out.
Three of the four mangers went to my farm, where they are used regularly. They generally stay in the barn to hold the grain that entices the sheep in at night. In the spring, when I set up the lambing jugs (the small pens where new born lambs spend their first few days of life bonding with their moms) I put one of the mangers in each pen. The little feeders are just the right size to hold the nutrient-rich alfalfa for ewes to eat as they feed their babies.
The three mangers in my barn have been well used and are now well-worn. They are dirty and wobbly, and have been repaired many times over the years. The sides are coated smooth with lanolin from the fleeces of the many sheep who have eaten from the mangers, and then rubbed up against them and knocked them over when they are empty.
The fourth manger the children built at that workshop remained at church. It has been used over the years as the manger for our annual Christmas pageant. I usually don’t pay much attention to it, but last year, when we were all practicing our pageant parts just before Christmas Eve, I had a chance to see it again close up. I have grown so used to the way my barn mangers look that it came as a bit of a shock to me to see how different they are now from the church manger.
The one at the church is still clean and sturdy. There are usually no hygienic concerns when children gather around the church manger every Christmas. And if our Joseph and Mary took a notion to place their infant in there, it would hold up without a problem. But my barn mangers? Uh, no.
I love all four of the mangers those children built almost a decade ago. They are useful tools with both of my flocks. They each hold deep memories of love and nurture and care.
And now, after these many years of use, they remind me of something important about my faith as well. I know it is obvious, but I often forget as I get swept up with all my Christmas preparations, that there is quite a story at the heart of it all. And the truth is that in acting out our Christmas story, we do not really want to get too realistic. But there is nothing like working in barn where animals spend the night to remind me just how gritty the images of Christmas really are.
The writer of the Gospel of Luke is saying something profound when he invites us to picture little Lord Jesus laying down his sweet head anywhere near a manger. In today’s terms, the writer might have said Jesus was born in the car that had become his family’s home when they lost their apartment. Or maybe he was born in the tent city who took his parents in when they showed up in town with no place to stay.
God is among us, everywhere. But if we really want to experience that presence this Christmas, we might just look in those places where the whole world assumes there is no room for God. In addition to finding God as we gather around a clean, sturdy manger, we might check the barn as well. We might look in those places we think that God will never show up. Because, as the story goes, it could be anywhere this Christmas that we see God face to face.