by Scott Eagan.
Every year, towards the end of Advent, in the chapel at St. Ben’s, the Madonna House farm, a wooden box appears under the altar. It is filled with golden straw, and it sits on a beaver pelt and a wooly lamb skin.
The box is not very pretty. It is actually an old feed box, a feed crib, a real manger (from the French verb manger, to eat).
You can see where animals—cows, horses, and sheep—have chewed on its edges trying to get that last bit of oats or salt. You can also see old nail holes and grooves and the smoothness of the wood from its many years of use.
The manger is striking in its simplicity and in the fact that it is the real thing. Its poverty evokes many ideas and images, especially if you are a farmer.
The dark brown, furry beaver pelt that the manger sits on was tanned by one of the farmers. For me, it represents the natural world surrounding our farm, and the activity, the work, of those who serve here. The woolly white lamb skin calls to mind warmth in the cold winter and the innocence and sacrifice of Jesus.
This little "crib" just sits there under the altar, plain and empty—until Christmas morning. Then the Baby appears, wrapped in swaddling cloths. His little arms are raised in greeting and blessing, and his eyes seem to be taking in the world. His heart calls out to the child in each of us, calling us to himself.
There is one thing, though, that you might find a bit unusual—in our setting at least. The Baby is black.
There he is, surrounded mainly by white Canadians and Americans—though we are also blessed to include people of many nationalities and races. We all live and work together; we all go to Mass together and pray in that chapel. And he is just there as one of us.
Recently, after experiencing this annual Christmas wonder for nearly thirty years, I asked a fellow staff worker, "Why do you suppose the farm has a black Baby Jesus?"
Her reason was simple and straightforward: "Well, Harlem, of course." (the African-American section of New York City where our foundress once had a house) "Catherine must have sent a black baby up there to St. Ben’s for your nativity set, because she loved that farm so much, and she loved the African-American people so much."
Last Christmas, that Infant led me to a powerful meditation, a Christmas gift from God.
Here lies the little black Baby Jesus. Here lies the Little One who represents all the people who have overcome and are overcoming painful and tragic histories of enslavement or persecution or exploitation. Here lies forgiveness, love, and freedom.
The Baby is wrapped in a plain white cloth which is held in place by a black ribbon tied in the shape of a cross—the cross of suffering and oblation, the cross of sacrifice and atonement. In that cross, I can see my part in the sin that has hurt others. We all have so much to atone for, so much to ask forgiveness for.
I am confronted by a black Baby Jesus, a Baby born in poverty, a Baby who will be wounded by hatred and sin. Can I see in him the Christ wounded in all peoples who are hurt by poverty and hatred, by pride and mistrust?
I am reminded of Catherine Doherty’s great love for the poor and of how poor and pitiful my little efforts to love are.
Catherine seems to be saying to us: "Don’t forget, dear farmers, the history of our apostolate. Remember that God led me to serve the poor. Remember, dear family, that God is always stretching your hearts and minds."
Can I allow her loving heart to work through me, her spiritual son? Can I rejoice in the consolation that would come to Christ’s heart and Catherine’s through any little act of atonement I can do?
Can I, as an apostolic farmer, allow my heart to be renewed, as a field is plowed open and the stones pulled out and new seed planted in it—by a Child in a feedbox?
But this year, as I gaze on the beautiful black face of the Infant, what I mostly sense is the heart of Love, his heart of love that reaches out in forgiveness and in the simple tenderness of a Child, to all mankind.
It really doesn’t matter what nationality or color the Baby in the crib is. Whatever it is, he is one of us; he is God-with-us. He suffered and died on Calvary for all of us, and he rose from the dead, forgiving all of us, saving all of us. He has united us all in himself; he is our unity and our home.
So, at Christmas and all through the year, let us tenderly pick up and hold the Baby Jesus close to our hearts—in atonement, in mercy, and most of all in thanksgiving and in love for God who loved us first.
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