Mahalia Jackson sings soulfully from this coffee shop stereo—“Away in a Manger,” a recording my parents used to play. And boom! I flash back to my 4-year-old self.
I’m uncomfortable. Bundled in heavy winter layers. Surrounded by boots, women’s long coats, men’s puffy jackets, as if lost in a crowded wardrobe. My mother’s hand was a lifeline as grownups trudged the paths of an annual Christmas maze on a chilly evening.
What is this memory? Where were we? We heard jingle bells, glimpsed gingerbread cottages, and passed fairy tale scenes where animatronic elves repetitively wrapped Santa’s packages. Then we advanced to the main attraction: the manger scene.
The mob there held us back. We waited. And it happened: a moment overlooked by the assembly. To my left, people parted just enough to reveal a wooden fence. Between rough rails, a long and gentle face, eyes downcast, appeared in sharp and startling focus.
Email to Mom:
Mom, do you remember taking me to a crowded Christmas maze of some kind when I was little? It’s been 40 years. I think we might have been there for a nativity scene.
What you are remembering is the Alpenrose Storybook Lane. When you were little, it was set up outside the Lloyd Center shopping mall, under cover but still open air. One year we hesitated to go because you had a cold, and that so often went into bronchitis. But we knew how you loved things like that, so we did go. It was a real fairyland, and yes, it was a maze. And there was a donkey.
When it came to a crèche, I was unconcerned with Mary—she never looked as if she’d just given birth. Joseph? Dutiful and entirely uninteresting. Forget about bathrobed shepherds and extravagant astrologers—for me, it was all about animals. I had learned to recognize animals from the elephant to the pelican to the duck-billed platypus; to name them by the simplest sketch; to imitate the sounds they made; to list what they ate and what kind of environment they called home. And Christmas came with its own zoo of whimsical creatures: flying reindeer, cinnamon bears, festive mice.
But I was too young to have encountered any non-human entity more exotic than neighborhood cats, dogs, and squirrels. So this visitation of something entirely other—it struck me speechless, froze me at the edge of the fence. It was all animal, and what’s more, something from the Bible was standing in front of me. The Bethlehem-bound burro, sullen and neglected, indifference gusting from his nostrils.
Jesus is fond of appearing outside the spotlight: in a stranger’s generosity; in a work of art no one appreciates; and even at the edge of His own manger scene.
Visitors had ignored, taunted, or tugged at him until he’d withdrawn into a sulk, as I often did (and do) when conditions must merely be endured. He probably felt much as he did on that o-holy-night: exhausted, uncertain, resigned to stressful surroundings. But he patiently accepted my attention, my hand moving like a magnet to a metal plate, my palm pressing his brow. His coarse hair, dry as my grandfather’s workshop sawdust, surprised me.
Why that sense of kinship? Was it our mutual out-of-placeness? A premonition—that I’d suffer hard roads, carry heavy burdens, perform thankless tasks, and rarely feel at home? Or maybe, sick as I was on that chilly and stressful night, I projected my own feelings onto him, my longing to be back home. Perhaps.
But I suspect it might have been what I have come to recognize as the first of many visits from Jesus in an unlikely encounter. He’s fond of appearing outside the spotlight: in a stranger’s startling generosity; in a work of art no one appreciates; in step with those who, their faith failing, take Emmaus roads away from the cross (or the church); beyond Christian community; and even at the edge of His own manger scene, with blessings of quiet reassurance.
He would come to me again one day—this quiet, willing servant—as I read a poem called “Mule Heart” by the poet Jane Hirshfield:
… it will come to your shoulder,
breathe slowly against your bare arm.
If you offer it hay, it will eat.
it will stand as long as you ask.
The little bells of the bridle will hang
beside you quietly,
in the heat and the tree’s thin shade.
And He comes to me again on this day, at this point in my journey.
Sitting in the coffee shop, I hear a line for vulnerable children over the speakers: “And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.” Others I sing for myself, from hard days of difficulty, tedium, and testing: “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay / Close by me be forever …” And He’s here, meeting me in Mahalia’s call. I can reach for Him. He will carry me.
Photograph by Roc Canals Photography