Monday, December 20

Ole Schenk

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2: 10-12)

More than a century ago, during the First World War, British poet Thomas Hardy reimagined the scene of the announcement of good news in his poem “The Oxen.” What we have in the poem is a group of anonymous and unknown figures huddled around a fire. Perhaps this scene evokes soldiers camping in the trenches, or family members separated by wartime. They could be gathering by firelight around a radio for any news that could bring some word of battles impacting their loved ones.

At the stroke of midnight, someone breaks the silence and says, “Now they are all on their knees.” Everyone gathered begins to remember: the Christmas story of shepherds kneeling in wonder around the baby born in the manger and how, in tales of British folklore, even the oxen join in the kneeling. “Now they are all on their knees,” says the voice, and none of the group could doubt “they were kneeling then,” that it has happened, that into this world it happens. Though the narrator of Hardy’s poem speaks in polished and educated diction, when he imagines what the invitation to come join in the kneeling might sound like, the voice that does the inviting breaks into a rural and lower-class accent.

It’s as if the joy comes up from the very roots. To a world brought down to its knees, down from the heights of education and technology, of material wealth and imperial power, down to wartime misery and breakdown, separation and loss, the voice of the angel breaks forth to speak and summon us all, with the shepherds and even the oxen, to adoration. 

God of love, help us, with the shepherds and oxen, to kneel in joy and adoration. Help us break silences and witnesses to your angel’s words. Amen.


  1. pallaksch7 says:

    Good morning readers of Habits of Grace, this is Ole Schenk posting to add a link to where you can find Hardy’s poem:


  2. pallaksch7 says:

    I received help from a former professor of mine back in Saskatchewan who teaches Victorian literature, named Patrick D. Kelly. He actually guided me to correct what I wrote in that the poem as Hardy wrote it isn’t at first set amidst a wartime scene “huddled around a fire” or in the trenches as I wrote in my devotion. Rather, the elder Hardy writing during the war, is imagining a rural country scene from his childhood where family and neighbors are gathered around a fire in “hearthside ease.” He still makes a contrast with his remembered childhood and the First World War in the poem. Patrick Kelly was helping me try to read the text more accurately for how it begins but he agreed with me for how I interpreted the ending of the poem. Another connection we could make regarding the oxen is Morten Lauridsen’s choral setting of the Latin hymn “O Magnum Mysterium” which includes the lyrics
    O great mystery,
    and wonderful sacrament,
    that animals should see the newborn Lord,
    lying in a manger!”


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