December 1, 2020

Another Look: Building a Cradle for Jesus

Two Women by a Cradle. Hoogstraten

Originally posted Dec. 1, 2010

Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in.

• “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Brooks

I am not good at working with my hands to fashion beautiful artistic creations. Never have been and probably never will be. I’m better with books and people and such, and have not developed the fine motor skills, keen attention to detail, and patient perspective and work ethic demanded of a craftsman who works in wood or another medium. I admire those people and what they make. I am not one of them.

Something I do know about is getting ready for babies. My wife and I have had children, four of them, along with three grandchildren, so I have some idea about the process of anticipating and preparing for a newborn in the house. Somehow, a lot of other “important” things get pushed aside when a baby’s on the way, especially if it happens to be the first child.

One’s attention gets riveted on the due date and what must be done to prepare for the new arrival. A room must be readied, furniture procured and arranged. A whole list of “baby stuff” grows and grows as you come to understand what you will need. Doctor appointments must be kept. Mom’s diet and other aspects of her health must be carefully monitored. Inexperienced parents take birthing classes to help them grasp and get ready for the delivery process. Questions fill our minds and conversations: Boy or girl? What will we name him or her? Natural birth? Which doctor? Or should we use a midwife? Which hospital or birthing center, or should we consider a home birth? What are the rules for mom’s maternity leave, for dad’s work, and how can we prepare financially for the changes to come? Breast or bottle feeding? Cloth or disposable diapers? These and a thousand other related matters fill our minds during the season of pregnancy and childbirth.

When a baby is coming, we get focused. We alter heart, mind, and behavior to welcome new life.

The Cradle, Fragonard

Eugene Peterson once told a story about getting ready for the birth of his first grandchild. When he first heard the announcement, it didn’t faze him much. Somehow, it didn’t strike him like the news did when he learned he and his wife were having children. Of course, he was happy, but his attention and emotions weren’t captured with the same sense of wonder and enthusiasm that his wife exuded about their grandchild’s upcoming birth.

One day he shared this lack of feeling with her. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked. “Why don’t I feel anything?”

“It’s because you’ve never been pregnant,” his wife replied.

“Thanks a lot!” Peterson replied. “Now tell me what I’m supposed to do about that!”

So she suggested he build a cradle for the baby.

OK, he thought. Peterson went to the library and researched different kinds of cradles and how to build one. He decided on the kind he wanted, diagrammed it out, then picked out and purchased the type of wood he wanted to use. Day after day, he came home from working in the church and went to his shop to work on the cradle. Sawing, shaping, preparing, fitting the wood to make a bed for the baby to come.

Eventually it came time to apply a finish to the wood. Here’s how Eugene Peterson describes the process:

I decided to finish it with applications of tung oil. I worked on each piece of the cradle with the finest grade of sandpaper, over and over. I then went to fine steel wool, over and over. Each application of tung oil deepened the color; after several applications it seemed like the wood glowed from within. Each piece of the cradle, shaping it, holding it rubbing it, over and over and over. And all the time anticipating the baby who would be in that cradle, over and over and over. . . .By the time the cradle was ready, I was ready, prepared to receive the gift of new life.

• Journal for Preachers 26, no. 4, Pentecost 2003, p. 7

God was bringing new life to Eugene Peterson and his family. For some reason, the announcement alone had not ignited his heart. He had to do something with his hands. To learn and feel the mysterious joy of new life, he himself had to create something. As he did, anticipation grew within him as the baby was growing in his daughter’s womb. Peterson’s own testimony is that he felt like he himself had become pregnant — pregnant with expectation, gratitude, and joy. The work of his hands sparked the awakening of his imagination. The simple act of working the rough spots off pieces of wood and massaging oil into their pores gave the Holy Spirit an opening to press new perspective and passion into the unresponsive spaces of his heart. Building a cradle, he became ready to welcome a child.

The Adoration of Jesus, Trebon Altarpiece

Advent is cradle-building time.

We did not and cannot create the life that God gives us. We cannot begin to fathom its mysteries. We cannot do anything to hurry it along or make it come to us on our terms. We cannot feel the wonder of it, or imagine the delight of it, manufacture anticipation for its coming, or get enthusiastic about its arrival merely by trying to work up the emotions ourselves. There must be some spark that invades us, some seed conceived within us, a grace that gets pressed into us like oil into wood. All we can do is build a cradle to receive God’s gift — find some way by which the Spirit will activate faith, hope, and love in our hearts.

Perhaps one will find it as he looks into the face of an elderly man while visiting with him in the nursing home.

Maybe another will find it through reading the words of prophets that express the cry of her own heart: “God, break through the darkness and bring light to our dismal world!”

Some hear it in the matchless music of Christmas, in carols that warm and soften frozen ground where hearts and minds have grown cold and desolate.

It may come through lighting a candle, or hanging lights on a tree.

Perhaps a lonely soul will be persuaded to seek the company of family and friends and find a welcome at the table.

I’m not that handy, or I might try to build something. But most anything can serve as a cradle. Empty hands will do. A meek, receptive soul will suffice.

O, come to my heart, Lord Jesus!
There is room in my heart for thee.

• “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne,” Elliott


  1. Thanks CM.

    I can identify with Peterson’s dilemma. I can also see how “gestating” something produces a significance beyond the object.