The Poverty of the Manger
Recently, I began reflecting on Christmas. It's ironic (and I have to admit, pretty sad) that I am starting to reflect more seriously on Christmas after Christmas has happened. Isn't that was Advent was for?
Things started out okay – I had a book of meditations by St Alphonsus Liguori, and was planning to use that to finally make Christmas more meaningful. Then a week before Christmas, it all hit me at once: all the shopping, packing, travelling, family time, etc. The little book by St Alphonsus was forgotten, as I was running from one thing to the next, and then (maybe not surprisingly) lying in bed with a cold.
Now that I'm back to my regular life, one day I finally went to my church and knelt by the manger. I remembered before Christmas, Jesus was not in the manger, and now I saw that He was. I didn't have to go anywhere: there was nothing to cook, nothing to prepare for, no visits or parties. It was just me and God and the Nativity scene before me. I had an undetermined amount of time to just be there and look and reflect.
The little Jesus was looking up happily, with His little arms stretched out. Mother Mary was beside Him, also smiling and kneeling, and St Joseph was standing by her. I thought – whoever set up this scene did a wonderful job, because they made it very detailed - there was even a painted backdrop with the night sky and Bethlehem. Jesus was covered in a white garment and lying in the manger, with straw all around Him. There was a little wooden stable over the figures, decorated with little white flowers on the roof.
Something about the scene impressed me and it was the poverty and simplicity of the surroundings. God who made the stars and angels, was lying in a little poor stable, unknown and ignored by the world, recognized only by some simple shepherds. He was lying on a manger, which is just a feeding place for animals – a beautiful sign of Jesus becoming our food in the Holy Eucharist.
As I looked at the little Jesus on the manger surrounded by straw, I saw that He was smiling. In the book by St Alphonsus (“The Incarnation, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ”), he says that Our Lord's sufferings began right from His conception, and continued in His childhood. Yet He was ready to suffer, ready to be poor, cold and forgotten in a little stable, and to descend from Heaven to experience all the misery of our human condition. He embraced all the suffering that came from this and from seeing, even then, our sins and the torment He would have to undergo in the Passion. Even if I was the only person on earth, He would still have done this, just for me. He was suffering with joy and love, and He was glad to come secretly into the world as the Saviour.
This is all that matters. It's not wrong to spend time with family and friends during the holidays. But I was really being like Martha rather than Mary – I was running around trying to do everything, worried that I wouldn't have enough time, instead of spending more time sitting at Jesus' feet and learning from Him. What would He say to me about Christmas? What is He saying now?
For most of us a lot of time before Christmas is spent shopping for presents. It can be a joy to give something to a person we love. Yet as I looked at Jesus in the manger, all I saw was His poverty. Did I forget Him? I received so many gifts, and He had nothing. Why was I so concerned about earthly possessions, instead of being like Jesus? And what present could I give Him?
There in the stable, our Creator has emptied Himself of all – He doesn't even have a house, and none of those things we put on our Christmas wish lists. Yet He is not asking for that. He is hungry and poor for our love, and if we haven't given it to Him during the hectic Christmas season, at least let us do so now. The people in the inn didn't give Jesus a place to stay, but we can give Him our hearts, - a home for Him on earth, where He can come and rest. We can make it a secluded place for Jesus that is reserved just for Him, and stay with Him there. On this feast of the Epiphany, as the three Kings bring gold, frankincense and myrrh, we can comfort Jesus with our love, and kneel in adoration as the Mother of God cradles her Holy Infant in her arms.