The Devil in My Manger Scene

He’s down in the left-hand corner of the scene, a bent and crooked little man clothed in a dark wooly covering. Like a shepherd, only more sinister.

“Who’s that guy?” my ten year old son asks, pointing to the unfamiliar figure. He recognizes the other characters in the picture—Mary and an infant Jesus in the middle, flanked by ox and donkey, angels, shepherds, three wise men, and yes, Joseph, who this strange and dark figure is addressing. Joseph looks a little melancholy, a little perplexed, sitting down there in the corner. 

“That’s the devil,” I answer. 

Three sets of eyebrows raise around the table. Silence. 

“Yep, the devil’s in the nativity scene.” 

We are looking at a copy of a centuries-old Orthodox icon. An icon is not just a piece of art. Beyond a pretty picture, it is meant to point beyond itself to the deeper nature of reality, and is a reflection of theological truths. I’ve brought out this Icon of the Nativity during Advent so we can learn how early Christians thought about the birth of Christ and its significance. 

This little vignette of Joseph and the devil may be unfamiliar to you. (I’ve never seen the devil advertised as part of any nativity set. Why haven’t marketers jumped on this?!) It’s based on a second century story of the events surrounding the birth of Christ. This story is by no means canonical, or authoritative as Scripture, but it does give us insight into very early Christian perspectives on the nativity. 

So, what’s the devil doing here? This wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Well, the story goes that after Jesus was born, the devil disguised himself as a hunchbacked shepherd and came to Joseph to sow seeds of doubt in his mind about the whole “virgin birth scenario.”

He holds a weathered old stick, a tool to mock Joseph, saying, “Did God really say that a virgin would give birth to a son who was conceived by the Holy Spirit? Isn’t that about as likely as this dried out stick suddenly sprouting leaves and buds?” 

Joseph’s in a tough spot. You could understand his confusion. He can barely explain the situation to himself, let alone the others who snigger behind his back. And maybe he’s feeling a little left out. He’s not at the centre of this scene, basking in the glow of the star-struck infant. He’s just a guy along for the ride, trying to do the right thing, to protect his young wife and child, and just keep putting one step of faith after the other. But it’s been a long road to Bethlehem. And he needs to sit down a minute. He needs a little air.

And it’s here, in this very natural moment of weary perplexity that the shape-shifting Old Scratch appears like an ordinary peasant that just happened to wander down from those hills up there on the right. His strategies are timeless:

“Did God really say … ?”
“Are you sure you aren’t just making this stuff up?”
“Poor Joseph. I know you love the girl, but let’s face reality.”
“All this incarnation nonsense—you think God has really showed up in your pathetic little world?”

Joseph’s eyebrows are furrowed. His drooping head rests on one hand. His eyes are locked on the stranger’s. 

At first I was a little put off by the devil’s presence in this oh-so-holy night. But perhaps this icon is closer to reality than many other manger scenes?

There’s a place here for doubt. For fatigue. For wrestling with temptations that don’t disappear when the twinkle lights go up. For an acknowledgement that Christmas is not something we come to without a little fear and trembling and downright puzzlement. 

There’s a place here for people who are feeling on the outskirts of joy, who can’t muster up the carols just now. There’s a place for sitting wearily in the left-hand corner of Christmas. 

But here’s the thing—Joseph’s still part of the scene. He has’t lost his halo, even though he’s locked eyes with the devil himself. There’s a Light here that embraces even this. 

Joseph will resist the temptation, so the story goes, though not in his own power. He will get up, and go on to embrace Mary and her mystery child fully. He will take his place in the gospels as devoted father and protector. Righteous Joseph. But here, for a few minutes, we are invited into his humanity—into an experience by no means unique to him. It’s familiar to all of us. 

If you need it, there’s a place beside Joseph for you this year. There, on the rock, where if you look over the hunchback’s shoulder you can see a tree in bloom. You’re still part of the picture, too.

*

Lindsey Gallant
S. D. G.

Whisper :: A poem for the Second Sunday of Advent

When I began to think about a small expression of peace for this Second Sunday of Advent, it was a whisper that took form in my mind. To receive a whisper requires both our silence and our stillness. The command is also an invitation: “Peace, be still.” Can we shape ourselves this Advent to be “all ears?”

Whisper

Hush
     to the worried restlessness of not-enough
     to the hurried rushing of not-yet
     to the wound-tight storm and its unalterable course of collision.

Oh listen, soft and low it comes
     — a whisper — 

     It is the lung-warmed vibration 
     of presence near and intimate,
     the sweet everything in the ear.

And when I am sounded in the timeless space between these lips
     I become still, 
          still,
               still,
                    at peace.

*

Lindsey Gallant
From Small: An Advent Poetry Sequence
Composed for the caregivers of The Good Samaritan Society (www.gss.org)
Illustration by Elizabeth Evans

Matchstick :: A poem for the First Sunday of Advent

This poem for the first Sunday of Advent is a meditation upon the humble matchstick, drawing on the theme of hope, the imagery of light, and the ancient words of the Nicene Creed. Every single, simple strike is an invitation to participate in the Advent reality of hope.

Matchstick

Strike!
This is the sound of hope
     one splinter of wood, dynamite tipped,
     dashed against a scrap of sandpaper
invisible breath of God ignited into a single flame
     small, but seen
     small, but just as much of the reality of day
as the great, blazing ball of glory hidden beyond 
     the rim of night,
     light of light,
     a begotten beacon in thick darkness 
a rising,
     first to waiting wombs
     and tiny, trembling yeses,
     and all the small forgotten
holding candle stubs. 

Lindsey Gallant
From Small: An Advent Poetry Sequence
Composed for the caregivers of The Good Samaritan Society (www.gss.org)
Illustration by Elizabeth Evans

The Small Moments of Advent

I have just a few moments on this busy Saturday before Advent to share two things: a sequence and a secret. 

The first is a sequence of Advent poetry I composed for the caregivers of The Good Samaritan Society (www.gss.org). The theme of the sequence is finding God in small places, and when feeling small yourself. It contains a prayer, four meditations on small things which correspond to the four themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – and a final blessing. I will be posting the poems individually here over the Advent season, but if you would like them put together in a little booklet, accompanied by beautiful illustrations, just subscribe to the blog and you’ll receive it in your inbox. (If you already are a subscriber, it will be on its way to you soon.) My little gift to you.

Advent and Christmas can be a “big deal,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. But this season can make us feel overwhelmed. Here’s a secret I learned in concussion recovery: small moments matter. Small moments – of care for self, connection with others, and anchoring in the presence of God – can have a huge impact on the atmosphere of our days. 

So don’t ignore that need to stop and breathe, even just for two minutes, that request for a cuddle, or that invitation to find a quiet moment with God. Small moments add up with surprising weight. 

That’s all the time I have for now . . . I’d like to leave you with the first poem in the Advent sequence, with my prayer for a blessed Advent season. 

The Prayer of the Shrinking Day

The geese have flown
and the black-tipped fingers of night
claw into my fading colour
a little earlier, a little hungrier,
like thin winter mice
nibbling the edges of my capacity.

And I find myself growing smaller,
pulling this threadbare coat tighter against the cold,
      tighter,
      colder,
      smaller,
      darker.

Is there enough of me left to withstand
the expanding night?
Have I shrunk out of sight,
out of rightful mind,
out of the migration path of God?

Oh heavens, the horizon is lost — 
do you hear my meagre cry? 

{Illustration by Elizabeth Evans}

Lindsey Gallant
S. D. G.

Noticing November 2022

I wasn’t sure I’d have the time or the heart for Noticing November this year. Here on the island, it’s felt like November ever since the big storm Fiona blasted through at the end of September and blew most of the leaves off the trees. I’ve been mourning our colourless October! 

But I was inspired by a friend who dug back to a post I wrote last year and created her own poem about noticing November. And I thought, maybe this is just what I need after all. When things are busy and brown, maybe I need to pay attention even more. Maybe attention is the antidote for feeling overwhelmed? 

Let’s find out! Join for me Noticing November 2022. 

It’s very simple. The goal is to slow down and pay attention to the beautiful things in the November world around us. This time of year can often feel drab and dull. But I’ve discovered so many moments of joy and wonder and connection when I stop to notice what’s right in front of me. 

This habit of attention slows me down. It grounds me. It helps reorient my vision. And it pulls me out of myself and into something bigger and more beautiful. 

You can join me in the Facebook Group Noticing November, or on Instagram @sacramentofsmall. Post your own pictures or reflections on what you are noticing using the hashtag #noticingnovember, and tag me so I’ll be sure to see it! 

Each week I will post a new challenge of what to be on the lookout for. This first week is all about light. What is the light doing? Where do you see it playing? How does it interact with the world? 

I hope you’ll join me! 

~ Lindsey

S.D.G.