When we left the barn service last night the sky was spangled with strands of stars, draped against the black night, linking Orion to the Big Dipper to the North Star. My breath smoked against the sky and I started singing under my breath, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our Saviour did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I. I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” It’s a haunting melody that I just learned this year and I think I love it so much because it is an Appalachian tune. According to the autobiography of John Jacob Niles, the fellow who first heard it in the deeply poor mountain town of Murphy, North Carolina, “A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to [an] automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... But, … she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing.”
That little girl was with me in the barn that night. She was standing right there in front of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus listening to the soft breathing of the cows, turning to watch the shepherds stride up to the manger, tipping her head to hear the choir in the loft above her. She was there with the other blessed, the meek at heart, the poor, the mourning, the ones who came to see a miracle wrapped in swaddling clothes. She’s the reason Jesus was born in a dirty barn, laid in a manger full of hay and wrapped in second hand rags. She was me and I was her, and together we watched our king reach his tiny hand out from the lamp-lit manger and welcome us in.