This Shall Be A Sign

Christmas 2003: The Nativity

Image by DUCKMARX via Flickr

I was haunted by these words, ‘This shall be a sign for you… a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”, and also  this blog post by Matt Redmond, “Christmas Is for Those Who Hate It Most.” 


And,  to aid in understanding the imagery used, the manger was not a cosy wooden trough,  but  was most likely a niche carved from stone at the site, and the stable itself  was a grotto or cave

After the angel’s Excelsis Deos, the mess
of this ugly Nativity was so unexpected:
that the stink of dung, not frankincense,
had welcomed Heaven’s exile,
that the cave floor was so smeared with blood,
that the wan mother was fallen into straw–
With suffering His kingdom
began its violent advance.

Yet these smelly vagrants had little interest
in these parents unprepared for their visit.
Their gazes fixed on the mystery
wrapped like  gravecloths,
laid in an animal’s trough,
nestled in a hollow made in cold stone
like a corpse in a sarcophagus:
this was their Savior.

Why do we outfit them all with halos,
snuggle Him in cosy blankets,
sprinkle the scene with pretty angels
spangled in gold? We tell a story
voiced with British accents
for suburban wide screens, drenched in sentiment.
We take the good news from the losers: the orphans,
lepers, hookers, and demoniacs–

Those from the night shift
He was anointed for.
But He came for haters of Christmas,
and of Him.  Even Creation groaned
at His birth–and a dragon waited to devour Him.
That bright star leads to a tomb.
The sign for you
is  strips of cloth and hollowed-out stone.

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11 Comments on “This Shall Be A Sign”

  1. Karen Butler Says:

    Some background information might help you to understand this poem, with its imagery of a stone manger, cave and strips of cloth for swaddling, that for this poet point to gravecloths and a tomb.

    Though the stable is artistically depicted as a cosy wooden barn, it was more likely a cave. In 150 AD, Justin Martyr (approximately 100-165 AD), a Christian philosopher and writer, recorded how Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable.1 Additionally, in 326 AD, the Church of the Nativity was erected at the site of the cave that was traditionally held to be the birthplace of Christ. The manger may not have been made of wood either. Archeologists have excavated several stone mangers that date back to biblical times,2 and one is in lplace there at the grotto of the Church of the Nativity. Though the stable and the manger are almost always made of wood in elegant Italianate depictions of the scene, it is much more likely that they were both carved out of stone in the cave, at the original site.

    1 Justin Martyr. Dialogus 1xxviii.
    2 Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time. Kregel Publications, 1997, pp. 38-41.

    Here is a Google Books link to the text of Maier’s book, that mentions these facts. Scroll down the to page 47 to see a photo of an actual stone manger that looks very like the ancient sarcophagi used by the Romans of that time.

    • Karen Butler Says:

      In addition, the image of the mother giving birth in agony, and the dragon waiting to devour the newborn, is drawn from this passage in Revelation 12:1-4

      And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.

      • Karen Butler Says:

        Besides the haunting words, ‘This shall be a sign for you… a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”, I was inspired by this blog post by Matt Redmond, “Christmas Is for Those Who Hate It Most.” Here’s an excerpt:

        I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss, can easily enjoy the holidays. They have not gotten lost on the way because of the GPS they got last year. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen. We live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

        But this is backwards. Christmas—the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer—is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshipers were not of the beautiful class. They were poor, ugly shepherds, beat down by life and labor. They had been looked down on over many a nose.

        Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness…”

        Read more of this wonderful essay here:

  2. Jingle Says:

    very lovely piece.

    You are under fresh poets to explore,
    I invite you to become a participant at Thursday Poets Rally Week 36…link in your entry when you are ready.
    That’s a better way to make poetic friends, and have your talent directly exposed to fellow poets.
    Poetry awards are to be given upon completion.

    Hope to see you in, Happy Thursday, best wishes for the year of 2011.


    • Karen Butler Says:

      What a wonderful New Year’s greeting! I’d love to make friends with people who don’t head for the door when a poem is read! I’m still smarting from the memory.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    Your description is insightful Karen, and is in keeping with varying similar accounts that I have stumbled upon this past month. It certainly highlights a more accurate picture of the truth of ‘that day in Bethlehem’.

    HAPPY NEW YEAR sister,and be encouraged to know what a blessing your blog truly is.

    • Karen Butler Says:

      Thanks for the kudos, Sylvia. My sister had to talk me out of an even more realistic depiction of the birth. But she was right–it detracted from my central theme.

      Happy New Year to you, as well! Yours and Jingle’s comments made my day.

  4. dan Says:

    Well written and enjoyable. More like reality with a force trying to kill the baby born in the lowest of circumstances. Well done!

    • Karen Butler Says:

      Thank you, Dan for your comments.

      Perhaps I need to make the poem even clearer–for those without some biblical literacy. The baby is Jesus, and the force trying to destroy Him is the Devil, who worked his purposes through the wickedness of King Herod.

  5. […] to abandon because they got in the way of the ultimate truth of what it is I wanted to express.  This poem, for instance, at first draft, looked like a crime scene.  Helpful readers (thanks, sis!) got me […]

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