An Advent Paradox: From Filth to Flowers

 

The poor, old stable of Christ’s old, poor country is only four rough walls, a dirty pavement, a roof of beams and slate. It is dark, reeking. The only clean thing in it is the manger where the owner piles the hay and fodder.

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long, slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom – white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man.

The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.
~Giovanni Papini from “The Real Stable”

 

 

 

 

As is my routine on Saturdays, I spent the day in the barn, breaking ice and refilling water buckets, then going from stall to stall to clean out the manure and wet spots, and finally adding fresh bedding. Then I climbed high in the hay stack in the barn and rolled hay bales down to load into the wheel barrow to push into the stable for Sunday Sabbath, a day of rest. There are always chores to do every day, but they can be abbreviated on Sunday thanks to the work accomplished the previous day. This is the nature of farming– preparing and readying for what is to come.

Farmers, by nature, are a hopeful lot. We plan ahead, plot out our next year’s crop, choose our seed in advance and plant it with anticipation. We prune and we plow and we store up mountains of feed far in advance. We evaluate pedigrees and scrutinize genetics carefully. And we wait patiently. As I clean their stalls, I watch my mares’ bellies roll with the movement of their unborn foals and I picture the new life in my mind’s eye. There is a harvest of hope in those bellies.

Unlike many modern horse barns, our decades old stable is a particularly plain and humble place with dirt floors, and as the support beams have settled over the years the door hinges don’t hang balanced and true any longer, so the stall doors are sticky and sometimes hard to open in the winter weather. Despite the lack of fancy design though, I haven’t heard the horses complain–their meals taste as good, they are warm and dry in the cold windy weather and cool in the hot weather. Their needs are met there and amazingly, so are mine.

Christmas began in a stable–probably a dark cave that served the purpose of housing animals. It most assuredly was plain and humble, smelling of manure and urine, and animal fur. Yet it also would have smelled of the sweetness of stored forage, and there would have been the reassuring sounds of animals chewing and breathing deeply. It was truly the only place a group of scruffy shepherds could have felt welcomed without being tossed out as unsuitable visitors– they undoubtedly arrived at the threshold in bad need of a bath, smelly, dirty and terrified and yet left transformed, returning to their fields full of praise and wonder, telling all they met what they had seen. No bath could scrub so clean as the sight of what that stable contained.

There could not have been a more suitable place for this birth that was to change the world: the promise of cleansing hope and peace in the midst of our knee deep filth. Despite our sorry state, we are welcomed into the sanctuary of the stable, sown, grown, pruned and harvested to become seed and food for others.

If even the shepherds became a harvest of hope, the flowers of the future,  then surely so can we.

 

 

 Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.

 

An Advent Paradox: Where God is Homeless, We’re at Home

twilightbarn

 

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam,
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
~G.K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas” (1915)

 

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stormynight

 

If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the grocery store check-out racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween just past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beaten to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying helpless and homeless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs – it is home for them. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving and homeless too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them and the invitation to “home”, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”.

Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I too am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times homeless, hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: He offers us a home within his homelessness, a treasure to be shared plain and simple, and nurture without end.

Who needs Christmas cookies, fancy toys and the latest fads to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Instead, you are invited home to eat your fill – just look to the manger.

 

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O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in præsepio.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Christum, Alleluia!

Translation:

O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord
lying in their manger.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

Christmas Eve at BriarCroft

For years, before the birth of this Barnstorming blog, I would sit down Christmas Eve to write a (sort of) rhyming farm poem — here are several from 15-18 years ago

 

Growing up as a child on our farm,
I remember the magic of Christmas eve night,
Bundling up in layers to stay warm,
To the barn to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
And spoke in words we could all understand.
They worshiped a Child born in a tiny town,
In a barn such as theirs held in God’s hand.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
The blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
In a barn, while shepherds and kings came by.

Yet my childhood trips to the barn were always too late,
Our cows would be chewing, our chickens fast asleep,
Our horse breathing softly, our cat climbing the gate,
In the barn there was never a peep.

But I knew they had done it, just too quick to see!
They were plainly so happy and at peace.
In the sweet smelling hay, and no longer hungry,
In our barn, though so humble, a miracle had taken place.

I still bundle to go out each Christmas eve,
In the hope I’ll catch them this time.
Though I’m older now I still must believe
In the barn, birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Yet our horses nicker as I come near,
They tell me the time is now!
They drop to their knees without any fear
In our barn, all living things bow.

Imagine the wonder of God’s immense trust
For the loving creatures who were there that night.
Now I know why this special Child must
Be born in a barn, it was only right.
(written Christmas Eve 1999)

 

 

 

Sometimes it seems time flies too fast
Amid our daily work and play
We want to make each moment last
and value in every day.

A place we’ve found that time slows
Is the Haflinger barn on our farm.
As we listen to the chewing among the stall rows
We know each horse is safe and loved and warm.

Years ago, such peace was found
In a Baby lying in a manger.
Sung a lullaby of animals’ sounds
Sleeping protected from earthly danger.

We can know that peace apart
From the rest of our worldly care
The Baby’s found within our heart
A knowledge we gladly share.

(written 2000 Christmas Eve)

 

 

 

 

I walk to the barn tonight as I do each year,
Counting my blessings, knowing my flaws,
Praying for family and friends so dear,
And for each precious creature with hooves or paws.

Each horse is content and a witness to peace,
And I wish every person could know,
Sadness and worry for a moment can cease,
While patting noses down a stall row.

For once I see the sky is clear
And stars are shining bright
The northeast wind is coming near
And briskly chills this special night.

For weeks stars hid behind a cloud
Of doubt, of fear, of weeping rain,
Explosions at once so horrid and loud
The whole world instantly felt the pain.

Like stars that glow through blackest dark
Good overwhelms bad with barely left trace
All owed to a Child who left His mark
By giving Himself in infinite grace.

(written Christmas Eve 2001)

 

 

 

On a night long ago
The two traveled far
After days on the road
Sought rest beneath a brightening star.

Yet no room was found
As they asked all they could
Instead they were bound
for a cave in the wood.

In a barn dry and warm
Farm animals welcomed them
Safely sheltered from harm
And the closed doors of Bethlehem.

Where else can the birth be
But deep in a cave?
Where the heart is set free
Our lives and souls saved.

My barn, like my heart
Should always have “room”
For the Word had its start
In a manger assumed.

As your Haflingers welcome you
To their barn home today
A heart is shown what it must do–
Always give Love and Peace a place to stay.

(written Christmas Eve 2002)

 

 

 

God Was Here: To Search Out Loneliness

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The winds were scornful,
Passing by;
And gathering Angels
Wondered why

A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
Were kind.

For who in all the world
Could guess
That God would search out
Loneliness.
~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B. “The Stable” from Mary Immaculate: God’s Mother and Mine Marist Press, 1946.

 

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Beholding his glory is only half our job. 
In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; 
we are not really Christians till that has been done. 
A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited 
by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice—
animals which take up a lot of room 
and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. 
And it is there between them, pushing them out, 
that Christ must be born 
and in their very manger he must be laid—
and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. 
Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals 
than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
~Evelyn Underhill

 

barnlight

 

Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others.

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

 

 

Tonyasleep1

 

Sometimes
for the light to replace
where darkness thrives
and loneliness suffocates,
there must be wounding
that tears us open to fresher air,
cleaving us so joy can enter into
where we hurt the most.

 

barnstorm

 

Preparing the Heart: Finding Room

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For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

barnlight

Though I’ve worked with many homeless people as a physician, I’ve never known homelessness myself.  However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.

It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.

We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.

By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.

They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.

Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.

The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.

So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.

Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. This stable and its manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened, remarkable in how unremarkable it was. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus one) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.

There is no room in our busy and “important” lives–from the moment we rise through the frenetic pace of work and home activities, there is no room for the solitude of quiet prayer and reflection, and for shared gratitude and grace.

There is no room in our schools, where all mention of religious practices outside of academic study is unwelcome and eagerly litigated.

There is no room in our city squares or buildings, where nativity scenes are banished and replaced with winter festival scenes of snowflakes and snowmen, or any symbol of religious significance is matched with a statement from the “Freedom from Religion” organizations declaring atheism as valid a faith.

There is no room in our homes where TV, computer, and social media become the altars of worship and occupy more of our time than anything else.

There is no room in our hearts and minds as we crave entertainment, sex, and drugs more than the freely offered gift of life.

Small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our beings, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

There will always be plenty of room there.

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Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
~Thomas Merton

 

God Among Us: Where God Was Homeless

barnlight

The winds were scornful,
Passing by;
And gathering Angels
Wondered why

A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
Were kind.

For who in all the world
Could guess
That God would search out
Loneliness.
~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B. “The Stable” from Mary Immaculate: God’s Mother and Mine Marist Press, 1946.

 

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
~G. K. Chesterton from “The House of Christmas”

 

Beholding his glory is only half our job.
In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth;
we are not really Christians till that has been done.
A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited
by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice—
animals which take up a lot of room
and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet.
And it is there between them, pushing them out,
that Christ must be born
and in their very manger he must be laid—
and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him.
Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals
than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
~Evelyn Underhill

 

…as the night of this world folds you in
its brutal frost (the barnyard smell strong as sin),
and as Joseph, weary with unwelcome and relief, His hands
bloody from your birth, spreads his thin cloak
around you both, we doubly bless you.  Baby,
as you are acquainted, for the first time, with our grief.
~Luci Shaw from “A Blessing for a New Baby”

 

If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. I have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and finally, it is about to arrive, after considerable fanfare and folderol. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beat to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying small and helpless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.

Who needs Christmas cookies, pumpkin pies and the candy canes to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Just kneel at the manger.
~EPG

 

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in præsepio.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Christum, Alleluia!

Translation:

O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord
lying in their manger.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy
to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

barnstorm

Celebrating His Arrival: From Gloom to Hope

 sunrise971411
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds!

So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.

Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!

Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.

Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star

still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.

— Mary Oliver

 

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