Away With the Manger

Away With the Manger November 5, 2014

The annual rant is upon us: Thanksgiving is still weeks away, and already the stores are full of Kristmas Krap. (As opposed to Christmas decorations, which are lovely and which show up at the appropriate season.) So a friend and I were talking about the symbols of Christmas, and how they shape the way we think about it.

And I confessed, for the umpteenth time, that I just can’t relate to the Baby Jesus. I’m not a mom, never wanted to be a mom, did everything humanly possible to avoid being a mom. (Let’s assume in this case that lifelong abstinence is not humanly possible.) I don’t really like babies; they’re sticky, and they emit things, objectionable things, from both ends. I’m sure I would have joined the others in adoring the newborn Jesus, but from a safe distance. I wouldn’t have wanted to be put in charge of the swaddling clothes.

But the problem with the imagery of Christmas goes deeper than my personal aversion to little howling things. Yes, the fact that God visited humankind in the form of a helpless infant is a profound and glorious mystery. But it can also lend itself to sentimental obsessing on the divine Cuteness, and miss the opportunity to celebrate the stupefying reality of Incarnation.

Jesus’ very presence on earth embodied the sacramental principle: that which is unseen can be experienced in that which is seen, the infinite in the finite. Jesus is the ultimate “thin place,” where heaven reaches to earth and earth to heaven. Jesus is God with eyes I can look into, arms that can keep me from falling. He is also a man, with a heart like a furnace I can enter into and meet “one like the Son of God” (Daniel 3:25).

In Sacred Heart: Gateway to God, Wendy M. Wright notes that the Incarnation teaches us that God is about the particulars, the specifics:

What [the Incarnation] means for us is that our hearts cannot be fixed on the generic or the ideal but must learn and exercise love through the particular. We are called to encounter God in the specific, embodied persons and events with which we come in contact … To have a heart inhabited by God’s heart, we must love specific people in all their idiosyncrasies. We must practice an energetically engaged love that mucks in the messiness of things.

Jesus is God getting his hands dirty. What if this were the miracle we celebrated at Christmas? And how would our approach to Christmas change if we shifted the focus to include not just the infant Jesus, but also the Jesus of the Creeds: “perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,” “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made”?

We need to see the poverty of God in the infant Jesus. But we also need to see the power that can bridge the gap between earth and heaven, between God and the sticky, messy children who bear his image. At the very least, we’d have a whole new collection of Christmas carols. I’d like to nominate one attributed to Thomas Aquinas:

Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen

who thy glory hidest ‘neath these shadows mean;

lo, to thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed,

tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the cloud.

When I was a child, I celebrated Christmas like a child. But now that I’m a grownup, I think this is what it means to me.

Susan Pitchford is a sociologist and member of the Third Order, Society of St Francis. She is the author of The Sacred Gaze, God in the Dark and Following Francis.

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