Reflections at the Manger

The virgin birth has never been a major stumbling block in my struggle with Christianity; it’s far less mind-boggling than the Power of all Creation stooping so low as to become one of us.

Madeline L’Engle, A Stone for a Pillow

Just ‘cause something’s important doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small.

Frank the Pug, Men in Black

It is Christmas night, and all is dark and quiet. The presents have all been opened, the meal devoured, and bits of wrapping paper and bows are still strewn across the carpet. The shepherds, who have just rushed in from their fields on the other side of the living room in search of the One that the angels foretold, have now made their way to the crèche to find the Christ Child there in his mother’s arms. The three sages are not far behind, and though greatly wearied by their journey, are currently scheduled to arrive by Epiphany. The tiny porcelain manger is faintly illuminated by the light of the Christmas tree, guarded by angels, attended by a few sheep and a solitary heifer.  All is calm. All is bright.

But within the confines of this miniature scene we must understand that there is far more happening than the finite human mind can comprehend.  This manger is a universe in a bottle, a tiny feeding trough with a greater capacity than we can imagine, for this night it contains worlds; tonight the very Creator, the one who set the stars in their places, dozes peacefully there, bundled up in cloths and nestled into straw.

Christmas is a mystery, beloved, and do not believe anyone who tells you that it is not, who would have you believe that it is merely a humdrum holiday about the importance of family, or charity, or generosity, or presents. No, it is a great mystery, and a two-fold one that announces itself from this manger of wood and straw, first en sotto voce that the world is about to change, then thundering from the heavens as the dark cold midnight is shattered apart by ten thousand blinding angelic diamonds, announcing God’s great love for mankind as shepherds cower in the dirt. The first mystery which presents itself to us is this – that a God of infinite worth, of complete perfection and total sovereignty would willingly debase himself and come into the world through the violent, pain-filled portal of human birth. This is not the Christmas story of greeting cards, or even of Christmas carols. It contains no snow-covered pines, no sheep safely grazing, no holly, nor ivy, nor silent nights, but a Savior who comes into the world screaming, covered in blood and placenta, an infinite God shoved into seven and half pound of infant flesh. Messiah appears, yes, but in the most vulnerable form imaginable, who must suckle at his mother’s breast, or die.

And it is a dark and violent world into which this Prince of Peace descends. He is a reconciler under the threat of political assassination before he is even born, his parents on the brink of becoming political refugees under the rule of a paranoid madman. In his humanity, he will touch every kind of physical and moral filth imaginable, beginning here, in a place where animals are kept. Later, he will willingly reach out and place his hands upon a leper and make him whole again, and before this story ends, he will take upon himself the sin of the entire world and call it his own – yes, even those acts so filthy as to be indescribable. He will bear it all, every last repugnant piece of it, because he chooses to, and in the moment of his death, as he reaches out to his Father for comfort, he will find . . . nothing. Only stillness and darkness, grief and pain.

So when I say that the first mystery is that he debased himself, I mean simply that he was under no obligation to expose his holy, pristine Being to the stain of sin that covers this world, let alone take responsibility for it and own it, as if he had somehow committed these sins himself.  Even so, the King of Glory lies as helpless babe tonight, and he does so not because some ancient contract forced his hand, but freely, out of the abundance of his love. The God who walked with Adam in the Garden had a will to pursue mankind as friends, to walk alongside us once again. This not being an end that we ourselves could accomplish, it is the Son who takes on the responsibility to step into our space, to become, not God distant from us, but God With Us. This is the first mystery.

The second mystery, then, is this – that the infinite could ever pour Itself into the mold of the finite, that the Godhead could ever put on flesh, the Maker now contained within that which he made. We marvel that all of the Trinity’s Second Person could find his greatest expression in the form of an infant, but how could it be otherwise? For to show how full was his love for us, he had to express that love by becoming fully human, by completely taking on our burden, and fully living as one of us. God’s love for you was so great, so infinitely vast, that he could only show you its measure by sending his Son, his beloved, to walk side by side with you and experience life as you experience it. Volumes have already been written by Very Learned Men on the subject of incarnation; they have probed it deeply from their pastoral studies and monasteries and seminary libraries, but they cannot understand the Word made flesh in any sense completely, any better than you or I can, for while its secret is contained in this tiny manger before us, our minds cannot expand enough to hold it. Seminarians fall to their knees in worship, same as you, when they encounter the Verbum caro factum, for it is not a philosophy to be unpacked by the mind, but a mystery for our hearts to hold. Mary marvels at it as she reclines upon the straw to nurse, for she and Joseph alone know the secret. Let all mortal flesh keep silent, indeed, and the six-winged seraph cover their faces and cry hallelujah.

And with this second mystery, he asks us to accept a third, greater still. He asks us to believe that our own hearts, sinful, wretched, unkind, could become the home for his immense Spirit, to once again believe that infinite can be poured into finite, but now the flesh that is filled is our own, God becoming one with his people and dwelling among them for all eternity. The story has been leading us this way since the very beginning, beloved, from that first walk in the Garden together and then the Shattering, this Creator has been seeking a holy reunion. He reached out first to a man called Abram, and through covenant called that man and all his descendants his own. Then he spoke through fire and cloud and smoke, thundering from the mountaintop, living amongst his people but separated by a thick temple curtain, teaching through Moses, admonishing through a series of prophets. The days of intimate garden walks, in the evenings when the dew came up and ground was cool, were so far away. But still he longed to be reunited with his people, and with every mouth that he opened to speak on his behalf he invited those he loved to return to him.

It is here, on this night, in the most ordinary of places, in the most humble of circumstances, that the King of Kings is birthed into the world, to walk among his people again and to usher in the kingdom of God. The story begins in a garden, and it certainly does not end here in this manger. Tonight God has taken a step nearer to mankind, pursuing those he loves, to walk in intimacy with them again. This manger is the fulfillment of all of the covenants, all of the prophesies, the answer to an ancient promise made to a heart-broken Eve in a garden long before. It is a cosmic response to a dilemma as old as mankind. But tonight, beloved, all that you need know is that here, amongst the cattle, the Ancient of Days is snuggled into his mother’s arms, warm against her body and preparing for his role in the reconciliation of God and Man. The King has come. Prepare him room.

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