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Looking Into the Manger

Looking Into the MangerFrom A Little Book for Christmas by Cyrus Townsend Brad

A Christmas Meditation

Christmas morning, the day we celebrate as the anniversary of the birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in the obscure, little hill town of Bethlehem in the far-off Judæan land, over nineteen hundred years ago!

It is said:

"When beggars die, there are no comets seen:
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."

What is true of the passing of kings is perhaps more true of their coming; yet in this birth are singular contradictions. The Child was born a beggar. There lacks no touch which even imagination could supply to indicate the meanness of His earthly condition. Homeless, His mother, save for the stable of the public inn—and words can hardly describe any place more unsuited—was shelterless, unprotected, in that hour of travail pain.

I love to let my imagination dwell upon that scene. Sometimes I think wayfarers may have gathered in the tavern hard by and with music and play sought to while away the hours as travellers have from time immemorial. Perhaps in some pause in their merriment, a strange cry of anguish, borne by the night wind from the rude shelter without, may have stopped their revelry for a moment and one may have asked of another:

"What is that?"

The servant of the house who stood obsequious to promote their pleasure may have answered apologetically:

"It is the cry of a woman of the people in travail in the inn yard."

I can fancy their indifference to the answer, or I can hear perhaps the rude jest, or the vulgar quip, with which such an announcement may have been received, as the play or the music went on again.

Oh, yes, the world in solemn stillness lay, doubtless, that winter night, but not the people in it. They pursued their several vocations as usual. They loved or they hated, they worked or they played, they hoped or they despaired, they dreamed or they achieved, just as they had done throughout the centuries, just as they have done since that day, just as they will do far into the future; although their little God came to them, as never He came before, in the stable in the Bethlehem hills that night.

And yet, had they but cast their eyes upward like the wise men—it is always your wise man who casts his eyes upward—they, too, might have seen the star that blazed overhead. It was placed so high above the earth that all men everywhere could see to which spot on the surface it pointed. Or, had they been devout men, they would have listened for heavenly voices—it is always your devout man who tries to hear other things than the babble of the Babel in which he lives—they, too, could have heard the angelic chorus like the shepherds in the fields and on the hillsides that frosty night.

For the heavens did blaze forth the birth of the Child. Not with the thunder of guns, not with the blare of trumpets, not with the beating of drums, not with the lighting of castle, village, and town, the kindling of beacons upon the far-flung hills, the cry of fast-riding messengers through the night, and the loud acclaim of thousands which greet the coming of an earthly king, was He welcomed; but by the still shining of a silent star and by the ineffable and transcendent voices of an Angel Choir.

How long did the Shepherds listen to that chorus? How long did it ring over the hills and far away? Whither went the Wise Men? Into what dim distance vanished the star?

"Where are the roses of yesterday?
What has become of last year's snow?"

And the residuum of it all was a little Baby held to a woman's breast in a miserable hovel in the most forlorn and detested corner of the world. And yet to-day and at this hour, and at every hour during the twenty-four, men are looking into that chamber; men are bowing to that Child and His mother, and even that mother is at the feet of the Child.

From the snow peaks of the North land, "from Greenland's icy mountains to India's coral strand," and on and on through all the burning tropics to the companion ice of the other pole, the antarctic, and girdling the world from east to west as well, the adoration continues. It comes alike from the world's noblest, from the world's highest, from the world's truest, from the world's kindest, from the world's poorest, from the world's humblest, from the world's best.

Do not even the soldiers in the trenches upon the far-flung battle lines pause to listen, look to see as for a moment dies away the cannonade? Do not even the sailors of war and trade peer across the tossing waters of the great deep, longing for a truce of God if only for an hour upon this winter morning?

Yes, they all look into the manger as they look upon the cross and if only for an instant this war reddened planet comes to "see and believe." What keen vision saw in the Baby the Son of God and the Son of Man? What simple faith can see these things in Him now? "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass."

That birth is known as the Incarnation. Ye know not "how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child." Life itself is insusceptible of any definition which satisfies, but we know that we live, nevertheless. Science points out a common origin in protoplasmic cells and is quite unable to explain so common a fact as sex differentiation. I care not what methods of accounting for life you propose, you yet have to refer it to the Author of all life "in whom we live and move and have our being." Why, therefore, should the Incarnation be thought incredible or impossible because it does not come within the limitations of our present understanding and it is not taught by our limited human experience. The sweet reasonableness of the Incarnation, this conception by Divine power, this birth from the Virgin mother, should appeal to all who think deeply on these subjects.

And yet perhaps the manner, place, and circumstance of this birth may awaken wonder. Possibly you would have the King come as other kings come, in pomp and circumstance, glory and majesty, with heralds preceding, music playing, blossoms strewn, and people cheering. Oh, no, that way did not seem the best way to the wisdom of God—a young girl, an old man, in the stable, no other tendance, no luxury, no comfort—poverty, humility, absolute.

Let us forget the Angel Chorus and the blazing star and go now even unto Bethlehem and look into the manger at that Child, while the uncomprehending cattle stare resentful perhaps at their displacement. The King comes as a Child, as weak, as helpless, as vocal of its pains as any other child. Not a Child of luxury, not a Child of consequence, not a Child of comfort, but a Child of poverty; and in the eyes of the blind world, if they had been privy to it, without the glorious vision of the good man, Joseph, a Child of shame! If the world had known that the Babe was not the Child of Joseph and Mary how it would have mocked. What laughter, what jeers, what contempt, what obloquy, what scorn would have been heaped upon the woman's head! Why the world would heap them there now were it not that that portion of it which disbelieves in the Incarnation, says that Joseph was after all the father of the Child.

Nor shall we go down to Bethlehem alone. The poor, ignorant shepherds came to the cradle that night. They could understand. It did not seem strange to them that their God was poor, for they themselves were poor. I wonder how much the shepherds reflected. Theirs is a profession which gives rise to thought; they are much alone in the waste places with the gentlest of God's creatures. Their paths lead by green pastures and still waters; they enjoy long, lonely hours for meditation. Did they say:

"Ah! God has come to us as a poor man, not because there is anything particularly noble or desirable in poverty, but because so many of us are so very poor, and because the most of us have been poor all the time, and because it is probable that most of us will be poor in the future!"

Many a poor man has looked up into the silent heavens and wondered sometimes whether God understood or cared about his wretched lot. Of course God always knew and cared, we cannot gainsay that, but in order to make men know that He knew and to make them believe that He cared, He let them see that He did not disdain to be a poor man and humble; that He sought His followers and supporters in the great majority. My God was a Carpenter! That is why He came to the stable; that is why He came to the manger. And that is why the poor come to Him.

And there came to that same cradle, a little while after, the Wise Men. They were professional wise men; they belonged to the learned, the cultured, the thoughtful class; but they were wise men as well in the sense in which we use wisdom to-day. That is, they looked beyond earthly conditions and saw Divinity where the casual glance does not see it. How many a seamed, rugged face, how many a burden-bent back, how many a faltering footstep, how many a knotted, calloused hand is perhaps more nearly in the image of God than the fairer face, the straighter figure, the softer palm!

The shepherds were not only poor, but they laboured in their poverty; they were working men and they worshipped Him, the Working Man. The wise men were not only wise, but they were rich. They brought the treasures of the earth from the ends thereof and laid them before the Babe and the mother. How fragrant the perfume of the frankincense and the myrrh, and how rich the lustre of the gold and silver in the mean surroundings of the hovel. They took no thought of their costly apparel, they had no fear of contamination from their surroundings, no question of relative degree entered their heads. As simply and as truly as the shepherds they worshipped the Christ. The rich and the poor met together there, and the Lord was the maker of them all.

Was that baby-hand the shaper of destiny? Was that working-hand the director of events? Even so. The Lord's power is not less the Lord's power though it be not exhibited in the stretched out arm of majesty.

Some of you who read this and many more who can not are poor, perhaps very poor, but you can stand beside that manger and look at that Baby's face, you can reflect upon the Child, how He grew, what He said, what He did, until a cross casts its black shadow across your vision—the war is raising many crosses and many there be that walk the via dolorosa to them to-day. You shall be counted blessed if you can gaze at that cross until it is transformed by the glory of the resurrection. And in it all you can see your God—the poor man's God!—the rich man's God!—everybody's God!

You can know that your God was poor, that He was humble, that He struggled under adverse conditions, that He laboured, that He was hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, that He was homeless, that He was denied many of the joys of human society and the solace of affection, that His best friends went back on Him, that everybody deserted Him, and that the whole world finally rose up and crushed Him down. That he suffered all things. Only a very great God could so endure. Only one who was truly God could so manifest Himself in pain.

You can understand how He can comprehend what your trouble is. Oh, yes, the poor and the bereaved have as great a right to look into that manger and see their God there as have the rich and the care free.

Now there is a kind of pernicious socialism which condemns riches as things unholy and exalts poverty as a thing acceptable to God. That Baby came as well to the rich as to the poor. Do not forget that. It is not generally understood, but it is true. He accepted gladly the hospitality, the alms, the gifts, priceless in value, of those who had great possessions and He loved them even as He loved those who had nothing. The rich and wise also have a right to look into that cradle to see their God, too. When we say He is the God of all classes we do not mean that He is only the God of the poor any more than we mean He is only the God of the rich.

He came to all the children of men and they can all stand by that cradle this morning and claim Him as their own; ask, receive, and share in His blessing. The light that shone in the darkness lighted impartially the world. Some of you are blessed with competences and some of the competences are greater than others. What of it? The poor man may serve God acceptably in his poverty and the rich man may serve God acceptably in his wealth. There is one God and though He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, even though He may lie lowly in a manger, yet the kingdom of Heaven is like a republic—it is a democracy in which all are equal, or if there be distinctions they are based on righteousness alone—saving only the distinctions Divine.

Now there is one other condition into which all men inevitably fall. Whether they be rich or whether they be poor, they are all bound to be sorrowful. Sooner or later, we are certain to be troubled. And that is more true today, doubtless, than in any other period in the long history of this old world.

These sorrowful ones can go unto Bethlehem and look into the cradle and claim the Child as their God. For every sorrow that has been yours, He experienced; every grief that you have bowed before, He was forced to struggle with. Very tender and compassionate is our Lord. I am quite sure that He notices your bowed head, that He puts His arms across your shoulders, that He whispers words of comfort into your ear, or that He gives you the silent sympathy of His presence, that He takes you by the hand; that whatever action most appeals to you and is best for you He takes if you wish Him to.

There are many people belonging to you or your family who are far away, whom you would fain have with you this Christmas morning. Many of them are fighting manfully in His cause, too. Do not forget that our Lord came to the family! that He made a family by coming. These far-off loved ones are doing what we are doing this morning. And there are some you love who are still farther away. The sound of their earthly voices is stilled, we may not clasp their hands, we cannot see them any more. They are gone from the world, but not from our hearts. If they are not here I think they are with Him. And we may be sure that it is very pleasant to them where He is. They are not unmindful of our human regrets and longings, but I think we ought not to be unmindful of their peaceful joy in His presence.

And so everybody has a right to come to that cradle, the poor, the humble, the hard workers, the toilers, the wise, the learned, the easy, the rich, the joyous, the sad, the sorrowful, the bereaved. They may all look into the manger and see their God.

He came to a family; He made a family. We are all in that family, the children of the selfsame Father, the sons of the selfsame God, the brethren of Him of the manger—German and French, English and Austrian, Italian and Bulgar, Russian and Turk! Ay, and above all and with all American and Belgian. Sirs, we be, not twelve, but many brethren! What does that mean?

There is one musical word with, I think, perhaps the ugliest meaning in the language. It is rancour. Let us do away with it, let us put it aside. If we are poor let us be brethren to the other poor, if we are rich let us be brethren to the other rich, if we are wise let us be brethren to the other wise, if we are foolish let us be brethren to the other foolish. Ah, that is not difficult; it is an easy task. But that is not enough. Brotherhood is broader, thank God! Let the poor be brethren to the rich and the rich to the poor, the wise to the ignorant, the misguided to the well-directed, the ignorant to the wise, the foolish to the discreet, the discreet to the foolish, the glad to the sorrowful, the sorrowful to the glad, the servants of the Lord to the sinners against Him!

"Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned;
Then spoils were fairly sold:
The Romans were like brothers,
In the brave days of old."

Let us make out of the old pagan ideals present-day realities in our hearts as we go even unto Bethlehem and look into the cradle of the King; realities in His own nobler and better words:

"Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me."

Peace, goodwill toward men! Peace to men of goodwill! That is what the angels sang. But there is nothing on earth to prevent us from making it our human song as well. As we stand by the cradle of the Master and peer into the manger at that which every human being loves, a baby, our earthly differences of nationality, of rank, power, station, and influence—things that are but the guinea's stamp upon the gold of character and personality—fade into insignificance and become as nothing. The little child in life notices none of these distinctions, he marks nothing of them. Let us come as little children before Him. We may be war-battered, sin-marked, toil-stained, care-burdened. Let us forget it all this Christmas morning.

It was a poor place, that manger—the poorest place on earth—but it was a place. It was somewhere. Let us give humanity even as little as a manger. Let us not take up the Christ Child as we see Him and throw Him out into the streets, or into no man's land. That is what we do when we mock Him, when we deny Him, when we laugh Him to scorn. Let us not shut Him out of His home place in our souls. Let us not refuse to open when His hand knocks upon the door. That is what we do when we are indifferent to Him. Let us take him out of the manger cradle, each one of us, and enthrone Him in the most precious place we have, our inmost hearts.

It all happened a very long time ago and much water has run in the brooks of the world under the bridges thereof since that time, but the mangers of the world are never empty. They are always full. In one sense, Christ is being born everywhere at this very hour and at all hours.

Let us give the Child the best we have, the best we can. Let us even now go down unto Bethlehem, laden with what we have for the use of the King, and let us see in every child of man that lacks anything this Christmas morning the image of Him who in that manger lay in Bethlehem and let us minister to their needs in love.

"The little Christ is coming down[1]
Across the fields of snow;
The pine trees greet Him where they stand,
The willows bend to kiss His hand,
The mountain laurel is ablush
In hidden nooks; the wind, ahush
And tiptoe, lest the violets wake
Before their time for His sweet sake;
The stars, down dropping, form a crown
Upon the waiting hills below—-
The little Christ is coming down
Across the fields of snow.

"The little Christ is coming down
Across the city streets;
The wind blows coldly from the north,
His dimpled hands are stretching forth,
And no one knows and no one cares,
The priests are busy with their prayers,
The jostling crowd hastes on apace,
And no one sees the pleading face,
None hears the cry as through the town
He wanders with His small cold feet—
The little Christ is coming down
Across the city streets."

What welcome shall we have for Him, my friends?



These loving and appealing verses were written by Harriet F. Blodgett, of whom unfortunately I know absolutely nothing but her name. I am sure, however, that if they had been written today another verse, even more touching than those I have quoted, would have been inspired by present conditions. And we should have seen "The Little Christ" coming down between the lines in Flanders, on the Balkan Frontier, amid the snows of Russia and the deserts of Mesopotamia, and perhaps, as of old, even walking on the waters in the midst of the sea.


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