Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

Whenever I queue up my Christmas playlist during my rainy December commute, I inevitably end up singing along with Mahalia Jackson. Her performance of “Away in a Manger” is the Christmas recording that takes me farthest back in time. I first heard it on an LP my parents owned called The Great Songs of Christmas—but she doesn’t sing all of the lyrics that my Sunday school class of nose-picking preschoolers performed for beaming parents at the Gateway Baptist Church Christmas Eve service. And since our song about the manger was accompanied by nativity pageantry, I came to associate the carol with every glimpse of a crèche.

To believe this child never squalled […] is to deny the magnitude of his suffering, making him incapable of knowing what we suffer, incapable of mistakes, incapable of learning.

From an early age, the wild variety of nativity scenes in homes, churches, and stores fascinated me. I suspect that my tendency to obsess over artistic excellence may have been inspired by my mother’s selectivity: She gave manger scenes the reverent attention most give their Christmas trees, and she preferred those that were handmade, simple, wood-carved or clay-baked over the plastic, glitter-sprinkled K-Mart decorations. I also assume that manger scenes gave me an early appreciation for abstraction: Some comprised silhouettes or geometric figures, representational as chess pieces. And, as with a chess board, a crèche was not complete without the full cast of characters: the burrito-wrapped savior (I remember how appealing it sounded to be so peacefully “asleep on the hay”); Mary, kneeling (an impressive feat, as she’s just given birth) and praying to or cradling the Christ; Joseph, standing dutifully by, entirely uninteresting; bathrobed shepherds, smiling like trick-or-treaters hoping for candy; the solemn wise men in their crowns, holding ornate gift boxes. And then, of course, the animals. I came to think that having a manger-side seat must have been like sitting at a campsite where there wasn’t actually a campfire—just a warmly glowing baby.

Still, it isn’t the light of the world that has always drawn my attention, but a character at the edge of the glow. I can’t find him in the lyrics, but he is there for me faithfully, quietly mysterious, since my earliest memories.

I’m four years old, maybe younger.  I’m uncomfortable. Bundled up in heavy winter layers. Surrounded by boots, jeans, women’s long coats and men’s puffy jackets, like I’m stuck in a crowded walk-in closet. My mother’s hand is a lifeline in this slow, stumbling trudge of pedestrians through a shadowy, sheltered space. Carols fall from heaven—or, rather, from speakers hung at intervals along this chilly labyrinth. I hear jingle bells. I catch glimpses through the crowd of tiny, make-believe Christmas cottages where animatronic elves repetitively prepare packages and sleighs. And then it happens: Immediately to my left, winter coats separate like curtains, revealing the low, rough rails of a wooden fence. Between the rails, a face comes into sharp, startling focus. A long and gentle face regarding me up close.

Email to Mom:

Mom, do you remember taking me to a crowded Christmas maze of some kind when I was little? I remember a narrow path through a variety of Christmas-related sights and sounds. I think it was outdoors, or in an open-air structure, because I seem to remember we were wearing heavy coats. Ring any bells? It’s been forty years. I think we might have been there for a nativity scene. 

Mom replies:

What you are remembering is the Alpenrose Storybook Lane. When you were little, it was set up outside the Lloyd Center shopping mall, under cover but still open air.  One year we hesitated to go because you had a cold, and that so often went into bronchitis. But we knew how you loved things like that, so we did go. It was a real fairyland, and yes, it was a maze. And there was a donkey.

The donkey. The burro that bore Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, that stood silently in that stable, probably exhausted and uncertain, trying to make some sense of his new surroundings and unfamiliar animals.

I had learned to recognize animals from the elephant to the pelican to the duck-billed platypus; to name them by the simplest sketch; to imitate the sounds they made; to list what they ate and what kind of environment they called home. And Christmas came with its own zoo of whimsical creatures: flying reindeer, cinnamon bears, festive mice. Still, this ordinary animal struck me speechless, froze me at the edge of the fence.

I suspect it had to do with Eeyore. I knew the Hundred Acre Wood as well as I knew my own backyard. Bouncy Tigger and honey-hungry Pooh were like kindred spirits. Fretting Rabbit reminded me of worry-prone relatives, and wise old Owl reminded me of the elders at church. And the droopy, depressed, kind-hearted donkey filled me with pity. But none of them had ever stepped off the page into my world. This may have been the first non-human entity I had encountered aside from the neighborhood’s yapping dogs and sneaky felines.

But I think it had more to do with nativity scenes. When I reached out—I did, I reached out, my hand moving like a metal plate to a magnet, my palm coming to rest against his forehead—what I was doing was learning that, yes, there was such a thing as donkey. Something from the Bible stood breathing before me.

He surprised my fingers as much as my eyes: the coarse stiffness of the hair on his head, dry as the sawdust of my grandfather’s workshop. My cold hand on his warm brow. He seemed resigned, withdrawn. A gust of indifference may have burst from his nose. Having been petted by a thousand people pushing through the labyrinth that day—teased, perhaps; ears probably tugged—he had retreated to that place where livestock go when conditions are harsh, relentless, and must merely be endured.

The thoughts and feelings I presume about those who are foreign to me often come to tell me more about myself than the others. And I think what I found in the burro’s silence was a truth for which I had no words yet: a state of suspension steeped in sadness and loneliness. I wanted to tell this glum Eeyore that he was a good donkey and that everything would be okay. That he would be returned soon the place he belonged, where he would be happier. Maybe, sick as I was, a little claustrophobic, I just wanted to go home. Or maybe my sense that he disliked this confined space, even though all was provided for him, was a glimpse of what would become my life’s most persistent challenge: answering a call to care about the world beyond my comfortable home—my stable stable, if you will.

“Away in a Manger” is a song about safety. “I love thee, Lord Jesus / Look down from the sky / And stay by my cradle….” “Bless all the good children / In thy tender care / And take us to heaven….” As a lullaby for a vulnerable and defenseless baby, it’s a beauty. As a comfort for a frightened child, it’s reassuring. But this Jesus—this no-cry baby—doesn’t that give you pause? It didn’t bother me. As a child, I believed as a child: I accepted what I was taught, by lyrics as much as by scripture. No contradictions occurred to me.

It wouldn’t be until I was 19, reading Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ and then watching Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, that the stained-glass image of a superman shattered, and I came to believe in a struggling human being, capable of frustration and anxiety, a man who probably wanted to sleep near his company’s campfire as the night grew cold. Some crying he made, I suspect. To believe this child never squalled is to deny his mother the pleasure of comforting him, to believe that he was never frustrated, never rebellious. To believe such a thing is to deny the magnitude of his suffering, making him incapable of knowing what we suffer, incapable of mistakes, incapable of learning. It is to deny him his burst of anger and his Gethsemane anguish. It is to deny him his humanity.

(Come to think of it, don’t the Scriptures tell us that the Holy Ghost intercedes for us “in groaning too deep for words?” Even the Spirit can cry.)

I’m no longer the person who desires a direct journey from “tender care” in my “cradle” into the glory of heaven. My faith was cultivated in the comforts of home, but it became faith in hardship, on roads through the wilderness between Point A and Point B. In retrospect, I can see how moments of doubt and darkness have been times of deep intimacy with a suffering Christ.

Looking back, I don’t think that Alpenrose animal was as depressed as I presumed. He must have known green grass. Must have known a pasture. An open space. These things made him. But here, encroached upon by so much that was foreign to him, so much ignorance and misunderstanding, so much abuse, he draws upon the DNA that makes him donkey and proves sturdy, stalwart, long-suffering, and gentle. Likewise, the donkey of the nativity fulfilled his purpose not in the comforts of home, but on the road, striving, laden with heavy burdens, without the company of others like himself, and with no promise of relief anytime soon.

He would come to me again—this quiet, willing servant—as I read Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Mule Heart”:

… it will come to your shoulder,
breathe slowly against your bare arm.
If you offer it hay, it will eat.
Offered nothing,
it will stand as long as you ask.
The little bells of the bridle will hang
beside you quietly,
in the heat and the tree’s thin shade.

In this poem, the beast of burden becomes a sort of omnipresent spirit, one willing to suffer with me. He reminds me of the donkey who became for me both a witness to and an icon of the suffering Christ. No wonder Robert Bresson’s film Au hazard Balthasar broke my heart: It’s a profound parable about a donkey who, raised by a tender-hearted girl, is cast into a life of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. It spoke to me of the passion of the Christ more powerfully than—well, The Passion of the Christ.

Perhaps that is what I sensed in my Storybook Lane encounter—a premonition of my future beyond my familiar environment, my community’s closed system, my safety from the wilderness. Maybe I had a sense of the hardships that I would find in an unfriendly world; in seemingly endless waits for liberation from places of tedious work; in my longing among strangers for kindred spirits.

Now, when I hear “Away in a Manger,” I sing some of the lines for vulnerable children: “Stay by my cradle / ’Til morning is nigh….” Others I sing for my own difficult hours on dark roads: “Be near me, Lord Jesus / I ask thee to stay / Close by me be forever….” And he comes, a comforting Christ, to my shoulder, having waited patiently for my call, out here in the storm. I can reach out for him. He can carry me.

[This reflection first appeared at Looking Closer on Christmas Eve 2014.]