‘Twas a few days before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except me. Rising early, I slipped downstairs to steal some time in solitude and silence before the others awoke and my attention and energy would be entirely appropriated by my visiting nieces.
I wanted to sit for just awhile before the empty manger, to contemplate the space made ready, to give my heart a chance to rest in peaceful anticipation. But it seemed that four-year-old Zippy had been adjusting the scene, and the various figures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and kings, were all lined up blocking my view. Smiling, I moved them aside—only to find that the manger was not in fact empty at all.
Instead, there in the hay, lay Mickey Mouse. Not just any Mickey Mouse, but a garish, sparkling, snow-globe Mickey Mouse pencil sharpener, filling the sacred space meant for Baby Jesus.
I was simultaneously amused and aghast. After all, this was the same niece who, at Christmas Mass a year before, hearing the bells at the consecration, broke into “Jingle Bells!” in exuberant Outdoor Voice.
I could delight with Baby Jesus in her enthusiasms, however misdirected.
But now I suspected that Zippy wasn’t the only one arranging the scene, that Baby Jesus might be having a little fun of His own. That Mickey might be messenger to me, from which I could derive meaning for my life. Was there something in my manger, where Jesus ought to be?
The analogies were a little too obvious, came a little too quickly. Cheap things that glitter. The snow-globe partly drained and half-empty—perhaps my proclivity for pessimism and doubt. Even the pencil sharpener spoke to me of writing—and the temptation of those who speak (or write) about Jesus and do not spend enough time talking to Him.
But I still sensed something deeper, a more quiet mystery.
As I sipped my morning coffee, I thought back to Holy Thursday, years ago. It was a turn-around of sorts; the day I dared God to show up in my life.
I had gone to Holy Thursday Mass, feeling as empty as this manger should have been. I had heard for so long of people who had encounters with God, but I had no such experiences. I wanted to meet the God they seemed to know as more than just a Bible Story. As the liturgy culminated in the procession of the Eucharist to a special chapel reserved for remaining in the company of Jesus, I decided that I would go, and that I would stay until He answered me.
I sat for hours. I don’t remember what I said that night; only that He said nothing at all. And then there rose in my mind a picture of a manger. At the time all I could think was “wrong holiday!” But even then something made me press in. To look more closely at the mess. To see what would become a frequent theme, in my life and in my writing:
…that feeding trough full of hay. Not the sanitized one we see on Christmas cards and sing about in carols. But rather one that might be found in a real stable–with hay that is speckled with dirt and animal spittle, perhaps with tiny spiders crawling in it, heavy with the odor of other things that animals may do in a barn.
And I thought about how Mary took the First Born of Creation and placed him in that manger, that feeding trough, for all of us.
In my mind of course I wish to offer Him a more perfect room, one clean and spotless and welcoming. But there is no other room. There will not be on this side of eternity. I have only two choices: I can only welcome Him into the Mess That Is Me, or turn Him away.
I’ve already written about this, more than once. How life changed that day, and I learned (slowly) to make my life a space for God to show up. To invite Him as I am, in the now, to give Him permission to meet me in the mess.
That was years earlier, and I am still working on it. I’ve joked about how God always uses this holiday—not my favorite, which is Easter—to speak to me. Again and again and again. But this morning, looking at Zippy’s handiwork, I heard something new.
“What if I don’t want to be in the manger?”
Uh oh. This was worse than Jingle Bells at Mass, or a manger on Holy Thursday. Whose voice was I hearing?
This time I didn’t see anything, only felt a warmth on my chest, as though a baby were being placed in my arms, against my heart.
And again we just sat, in silence.
I might have overlooked this, reducing it to a mere moment of pious consolation, had I not just the night before picked up Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son. In Nouwen’s life too, God used the same scene repeatedly to communicate different lessons—in his case Rembrandt’s depiction of the prodigal’s homecoming.
There is a point in the story, when God suddenly highlights to Nouwen not the main characters (all of which he will later write at length about) but the observers, the bystanders. And Nouwen is challenged to realize that he has thus far remained at a safe distance from the heart of the story—he is still outside, comfortably looking in. Does he dare embrace the vulnerability necessary to stand in the center, to enter the embrace of the Father?
I am challenged, and to be honest, a little discouraged, by this question—because I realize that even after all this time, I too fear that level of vulnerability.
Yet that is precisely why at Christmas we are given a vulnerable baby to hold. The God of the Universe makes Himself small—not only to fit in a manger, but so that we might dare to press Him close to our hearts, to let Him draw near—so that He in turn might hold us.
When at last we come full circle to Holy Thursday again, we see the disciples once again afraid, for He has just announced His imminent betrayal. The men start debating and defending. But one head rests against the heart of Jesus, in silent intimacy. Was he seeking to console or be consoled? Or could it be that this silent communion was the source of his strength to do what the others could not—to follow all the way to the center, to the open outstretched arms of God on the Cross.