One of my favorite Christmas decorations from my childhood was our crib scene. It was really nothing terribly special, and looked like every other Fontanini nativity scene out there. But I remember it had a certain smell and feel, and was wrapped in a certain kind of packing paper that I can still remember. There was straw everywhere. It had all the usual arrangements – camels, the three kings, shepherds and their sheep. It had angels and the oxen and the mule. And of course, it had Mary and Joseph in their usual dramatic poses. It also had a manger and a figurine for the baby Jesus. Jesus was a separate figure, so we used to hide Jesus during Advent in the hay or in the crevice behind the oxen, which might have seemed weird to other people who saw it. Looking back on it, that’s one of the greatest memories I have. After waiting about a month, and after getting all excited about the presents and food, I always loved being the one who got to put the child Jesus in the manger. Even if just for a few short moments before the chaos of presents resumed, it brought me back to what Christmas was all about.
Lots of people try to find God in different ways, trying to get in contact with God through some method. My friends and I were talking about going on vacation to Sedona, Arizona this year, and I discovered that people travel from all over the country and the world to find these “vortexes” in Sedona – places where one can come in close proximity to cosmic energy or something. I’d love to see the bumper stickers that they sell there! I was also reading about these things called SynchroDestiny seminars. They’ve become extremely popular 4-day workshops, and they use Yoga techniques and Primordial Sound Meditation (whatever that is) to teach others “how to harness the power of coincidence, align themselves with the universe, and take their lives to the next level.” Oh yeah, and it costs $4,175!
Sometimes we get the idea that God is something distant and mysterious, that we have to pray the right prayer or find the perfect combination of cosmic energy waves to come into contact with him. Yes, it’s true that God is mysterious, but if you look at the nativity scene like the one in my house growing up, you don’t have Mary and Joseph in these awkward Yoga poses with some kind of weird vortex that says “Jesus”. You find a baby in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, in some cave or stable, and you find Mary and Joseph kneeling or standing in adoration. Christ is mysterious, but he comes to meet us in the muck of our everyday lives. The shepherd that we hear about in the Gospel were just doing their normal, not-so-glamorous job when they heard the message. Joseph and Mary had their child in a cave while they were waiting to register for the census. Even St. Theresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, said she found the Lord best among pots and pans. Christ comes to us in a special way during Christmas – hence the reason you’re all here! – but he comes to us in our everyday lives as well.
It’s interesting the parallels that the Christmas story has with another event in Jesus’ life. The wood of the manger that Jesus lay in is a foreshadowing. It is the Cross of Christmas. Think about the connections. The wooden manger sat between two animals, while the wooden cross stood between two thieves. Angels are present at Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes – to keep him warm at his birth, and to wrap his body for burial. He was marked as the king of the Jews as each – first by those seeking to worship him, then by those seeking to mock him. Even now, we find ourselves flanked by two images of Mary – on the one hand she held him as he smiled happily, and on the other, she held him as his face was contorted in death. Even at his birth, Jesus is intimately connected to the Cross. That’s his destiny! That’s why he came!
Jesus comes to us in the ordinary events of our lives, but many times, those ordinary events involve a lot of pain, suffering, or discontentment. I ran into one of our office workers recently, who mentioned that she wondered whether her mom would remember her name this Christmas. Fr. Don was telling me also that he went to visit a couple married for over 60 years, with the 93-year-old husband in the hospital over Christmas for a recent heart attack. The day after Christmas, I will be joining parishioners as they lay their loved one to rest in our cemetery. And of course, the events of the Newtown shooting are still too close to the forefront of our minds. It is for people who suffer and struggle that Jesus came. Christmas isn’t just about presents, food, or even family, it’s about redemption. It’s about the fact that it is into the pain or the ordinary or the imperfect circumstances of our lives that he comes. He comes as a child – innocent and pure – so as not to overwhelm or threaten us, and he comes to us on the cross – beaten, bruised, and weak – to be with us when we feel the same way.
A broken heart, a weakened heart, or an apathetic heart is merely an empty manger. As we approach the Lord together in the Eucharist this Christmas, return to that nativity scene as I did as a child. Invite the virgin and the carpenter to pray beside you. Invite the Savior to dwell within you. And in that humility and love, you will find what Christmas is all about.