NOTEworthy December 27

The Oxen – John Rathbone

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

This is perhaps an interesting choice for what is functionally a Church Devotional Column, but I find this text fascinating and the harmonies of John Rathbone’s arrangement utterly intoxicating.

This wondrous text somehow connects the innocent, almost fantasy-like visions of that first Christmas that we all get caught up in as children, and connects it to a place of jadedness that can catch up with us as we grow older. It connects this doubt that the speaker feels about oxen actually, literally kneeling to the manger to an honest, if impractical, hope that it may be so.

Too seldom is faith portrayed this way – as a light flickering against the cold of logic and self-preservation. But that is often what faith looks like, and often what it feels like as well. I imagine the wise men had more than a few moments along the way of looking at the road ahead, the road behind, and thinking to themselves, “…have I lost my mind??” And then, after miles and miles, when they finally arrive with their grand, expensive gifts – a cattle stall, stinking, and crowded. But they have come all this way, and so they enter, the hems of their robes now dirty with who-knows-what, and they give their grand gifts to this child Messiah.

This Christmas may not feel as grand or as festive as years past. That’s ok. It may be a Christmas of doubt, or of mourning, or even of less-than-usual. Your faith and joy may feel more like the one illogical thing you allow yourself to do, rather than a life-giving belief. That’s ok, too.

But if someone says, “Come, see the oxen kneel,” muster your faith and go. This year, that may take the form of a Zoom call, or gifting some cookies, or watching a church service that just isn’t the same as the in-person version.

Look for the little miracles, and go into the gloom hoping they might be so.

“Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the LORD told him. And as Elijah stood there, the LORD passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 19:11-12

Andy Eaton
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church