December 12, 2016

Child in the Manger

Child in the manger,
Infant of Mary;
Outcast and stranger,
Lord of all.
Mary MacDonald, tr. Lachlan MacBean

Here is another of my favorite Christmas carols (especially if you can find it in the tune sung by Michael W. Smith (track 10)!). The whole song is tremendous, but the little quatrain above is among its most outstanding … simply for the way it succinctly (and abruptly!) places, side-by-side, Jesus’ humility and glory.

The humility is there, right off the top of the song, and is quite expected, as in so many other Christmas Carols. We are constantly singing about “Mary” and her “infant” and the “manger” during this final month of the year. A little more startling are the words “outcast” and “stranger.” But they are accurate, are they not? Why was Jesus in that manger in the first place? Because his family was in from out of town, and couldn’t find an open hotel room. Perhaps the fact that they were poor didn’t help them in that search. And so, yes, “outcast and stranger” is appropriate language for a little boy born in a stable.

And this, of course, is the yearly anticipated narrative of Christmas – “child in the manger, infant of Mary, outcast and stranger, Lord of all.”

Wait, what? “Lord of all”? That’s not usually the kind of phrase you find tagged behind “outcast and stranger.” Yes, I know that at Christmas, such a juxtaposition is not surprising; and in the gospel, such a combination is expected. But just imagine yourself a passerby that first Christmas, without Luke 2 and a whole host of Christmas carols half-memorized. Imagine yourself on the way home from a friend’s house, and stumbling upon this little family tucked away in a cattle stall out in back of the local inn. What words might you have mumbled to yourself as you walked past the little family in the stable, with a manger for a cradle?

Perhaps in those days, before our modern attention to hygiene, the situation may have seemed a little less alarming. But still, with the family sleeping near the animals, and the baby in a feed trough, you might have thought the scene looked a quaint kind of pitiful. You might have smiled at the hope of a new little life, and at this young couple doing the best they could. But you may have also quietly prayed as you continued along your way: ‘O God, help that little baby who seems to be starting off life with already a strike against him. Give him and his parents a chance to make something of their lives, even as far behind the curve as they seem to be beginning. “Child in the manger, Infant of Mary; outcast and stranger,” help him survive.’

Isn’t that how you’d pray, today, if you saw a down-on-their-luck young couple leaving the hospital, with no coats on, carrying their newborn baby in a patched up old car-seat, and wearing worn out clothes? Once again, you’d smile at the beautiful baby, and at the parents doing their best. But you’d also whisper: ‘O Lord, give that baby a chance in life. Help his parents to make ends meet. Take care of them in their obvious need.’ Yes, you might venture to tell yourself that this child could become the next John Glenn or Lottie Moon (and he or she could!). But, if you were like me, you’d probably be less filled with big dreams, and more so with prayers that this little one would simply make it in life.

Which is why it’s so surprising, a few days later, to find this poor little family in Bethlehem surrounded by magi, and being showered with gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and why it ought to be a little bit startling to find that first quatrain of Child in the Manger change directions so quickly! “Outcast and stranger, Lord of all”?

Yes! That’s the way God does things! It’s the way He worked with Joseph in the Old Testament; and with Queen Esther; and in Bethlehem; and at Golgotha! And it’s the way He is at work in our own day, when the name of Jesus is so often so unpopular and unacceptable in our culture, and when His followers are becoming more and more outcasts and strangers, even in their own land. It may look, to the casual passer-by, that the cause of Christ is in its sunset, with not much more hope for a bright future than a child born in an animal shed. But the principle of Christmas is still true! Jesus, the outcast and stranger, is, in God’s economy, still Lord of all! And His people, who are cast out and estranged with Him, will reign with Him someday, too.

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