Saturday, December 23, 2017



This year when we set up the manger scene in the church we relocated it from just inside the front entrance, where you could easily touch the figures, to the other side of the sanctuary, where it is visible by everyone in the church, but considerably farther away. The first reasons for the move were practical ones (e.g. it saves a couple of hours of setup time). But I find that placing the infant in the manger at a little distance also has another effect.

Sitting in the nave for 8:45 mass this morning, I noticed that the nativity set was about 20 yards in front of me, off to the left, leaving this “empty” space between me and the empty manger. This distance was, it seemed to me, a good counterbalance to our usual way of thinking of the nativity. I think that many of us, in reflecting on the mystery of Christ’s birth, concentrate on the romanticized scene of the cute infant lying on the clean straw and wearing a shiny white tunic. The deep mystery of the incarnation gets reduced to a cuddly object of pleasant meditation, associated with gentle carols and memories of childhood holidays.  

At my 5:30 meditation earlier this morning I decided to read Luke’s familiar account of the birth of Jesus not in English but in the language in which he first wrote it -- Greek. I was betting that, although I know the meaning of the Greek words, they wouldn’t evoke the warm feelings (what the linguists call “affective connotations) that they do in the English translation.

I was right. In Greek, “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” was not a picturesque and familiar episode of a nice, sanitized story, but a stark account of a child’s being born in unsanitary squalor, without even a proper place to sleep. A pretty unpromising start to the story of the Savior of the world! I’m fairly sure that this is the way that Luke intended for us to read it: Jesus came to identify with the poor and oppressed, and so chose to be born in poverty, among unpleasant animal smells, with no real place to lay his head.

As I reflected on the unemotional Greek text, it was easy to recall that the story of Bethlehem is connected with all the other “mysteries” of the “Christ event”, including his miracle- working, his preaching, his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. We tend, naturally, to neglect these interconnections and concentrate instead on one mystery at a time, separating each from the entirety of the Mystery. The liturgical celebrations that seem to concentrate on just one event at a time always use the orations and readings to place that particular mystery in the larger context of the entire Christ event.

So, having the nativity scene a little less accessible this year can be a thought-provoking and, I hope, unsettling lesson for us who worship in St. Mary’s church this Christmas. “Jesus isn’t in the familiar place, where I’m used to finding him!” Maybe this is an invitation to look for him coming to earth in some new and different places in your life. “Baby Jesus is no longer close enough for me to look into his eyes and touch his hand!” Maybe this new distance can remind you that the birth of the Word made flesh is, after all, a deep and incomprehensible event.

The twenty yards of distance between you and the manger leaves room for the other mysteries of Christ’s life, such as his passion and death and resurrection. In fact, I have to go to a funeral two days after Christmas. Thanks to the new location of the manger scene, maybe the contrast with the birth of the Savior won’t seem as jarring.

All of that being said, let us rejoice and be glad, for Christ is Born for us! Come, let us adore him!

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