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Of Barns and Christmas

Mary and Joseph with the the newborn Christ childMost people may not typically put “barn” and “Christmas” in the same sentence.  But since I was a small child, I always connected the two.  Maybe it was because I was pretty familiar with barns—I spent a lot of time in our barn feeding the cattle, putting down fresh straw for them to sleep on, and of course cleaning it out from time to time.  Some of you who are from a farm background will understand this—barns are special places that provide shelter and comfort for animals of all kinds and ages.  It is incredibly satisfying to hear the cattle lowing softly in contentment in a barn, ready to spend the night on new, clean bedding.

Of course as a child I was also very familiar with another event that took place in a barn over 2000 years ago, where the Christ child was born.  I often wondered what it would be like to have a baby in a barn, and to place the tiny infant in the feed bunk on the hay, because there was no other clean, soft place to put him.  And then I think about how the cows and the other animals may have reacted to this strange and unfamiliar sight.  There is an old Norwegian folk tale about how the animals that night were given the power of human speech so that they could add their voices to those of the angels and shepherds, praising God for this most wonderful gift:

In the frosty mountains and on the snowy fields of Norway, there is a legend that draws children to all kinds to stables and stalls throughout the country on each Christmas Eve night. They are hoping to hear a miracle. They are waiting to hear the animals talk.

Over 2,000 years ago, Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. This was no abandoned place, but was a working stable, filled with animals of all kinds. Into these humble surroundings, encircled by the innocent creatures of God, the Savior of man came into the world.

Now according to legend, at least, Christ’s birth occurred at exactly midnight. Inside the stable, the animals watched in wonder as the new-born babe was lovingly wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. Suddenly, God gave voice to the animals and immediately they began to praise God for the miracle they had just seen. This went on for several minutes and, just before the entrance of the shepherds — who had hurried to the stable because angels had told them the Christ had been born there — the animals again fell silent. The only humans who had heard them were Mary, Joseph and, of course, the Christ child.

The legend of the talking animals persists to this day in Scandinavia. And every Christmas Eve, wide-eyed children creep into stables just before midnight to hear the animals praise God for the wondrous birth of His Son. Of course, adults scoff at this. “Old wives tales,” they grump. “Those children should be home in bed, not out in the cold waiting for the family cow to preach a sermon.”

But the children know — or at least believe — that animals really do praise God at midnight every Christmas Eve. And who of us — those who believe in an all-powerful God — can say that it really doesn’t happen?  [by Ed Price]

And this is one of the reasons that I’m so blessed to be a farmer.  Farmers understand that connection between the earthiness of a lowly barn and the heavenly dwelling place of almighty God, the creator of all.  Martin Luther once said something to effect that the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Lord of the universe was most God-like in two places:  in the manger, and on the cross.  According to our human understanding, of course, this is nonsense.  But this is where God chose to show his love and compassion to all humankind—by sending his son to become one of us, that he might bring us back to God by living with us, teaching us, dying for us, and rising from the dead.

I’ll leave this post with a small gift for you.  Since 1919, the carol “Once in Royal David’s City” has been sung at the Christmas Eve lessons and carols service at King’s College in Cambridge, England.  It is a beautiful, beloved carol that ties together the disparate ideas of barns, farm animals, Christmas, and heaven.  Watch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMGMV-fujUY.

Once in Royal David’s City

Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

And through all
His wondrous childhood,
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly mother,
In whose gentle arms He lay.
Christian children all should be,
Mild, obedient, good as He.

For He is our childhood’s pattern,
Day by day like us He grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew,
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him, but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars
His children crowned,
All in white shall wait around.

Merry Christmas from Hoosier Heritage Farm!