Irony in the Manger

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Luke 2:4-7: "So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.   While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."

Luke's report of this most significant event is matter-of-fact.  It explains to us the irony of a family, long seperated from its distant, royal roots, reduced to the incovenince of Roman rule and the dishonor of giving birth in a barn.  This is itself paradoxical enough, and how very true to life.  A desperately exhausted Mary at the full-term of her pregnancy and a worn-out Joseph are left with the worst accommodations.  We are far from the palace of a king. 

Yet what is left unstated is equally an incongruity, for Luke, like every good Christian, knows that this newborn is Messiah and God.  The great North African Bishop, Augustine of Hippo wrote a poem that explores this profound puzzle:

Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.

The birth of Jesus is full of paradox: that infinite power could be expressed in helplessness; that infinite space would recede to a few pounds and inches of scrawny, human child; that God the Word would first come unable to use language.

Writers often work to craft an ornate passage full of crisp details only to discover that the simplest words are all that are needed.  Indeed, such rich simplcity may express more eloquence than a more mannered draft.  "Ah, those few little words are perfectly enough" the author concludes.  And we sense that to say more at this time would undermine the simple truth.

So Christ came in such simplicity.

(The poem is taken from The Book of Jesus. Ed. Calvin Miller. NY: Simon & Schuster. 139.)

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding