I grew up with a manger scene, of course… the very same one that still adorns my mother’s living room each Advent/Christmas season. My dad made ours out of plywood when we were children. There is a round hole in the back at the top of the wall where a Christmas bulb fits through: shedding light on the scene below. The various pieces are simple painted plaster — chipped and marred by many, many years of handling by children and grandchildren and somewhat faded by the passing of time. All of the usual players are there: Mary and Joseph, some donkeys and camels and sheep, a few shepherds, a dog, an angel who hangs on a nail on the front of the stable announcing this Good News, and some wise men bearing gifts. And the baby Jesus, of course.
In my home I have prettier ones than that I suppose. I have the carved olive wood scene that comes from the Holy Land, the soapstone one I purchased for $7.50 at a market in Nairobi, and the dark wooden one I pieced together on my last trip to Tanzania. They are all precious to me, but none evoke the memories that the first one does, for it was on our knees that four little girls played with it as a kind of holy dollhouse. Over and over we would arrange the figures. In fact, my folks would say they would come in and find Mary in the strangest of places sometimes. This wasn’t borne of disrespect though. It was just children trying to take hold of this amazing, familiar story and make it our own.
We still do it, of course. In manger scenes the world over we depict this so familiar scene and if we think to do so, we pause each season to make it our own once more. It was a few Christmases ago that I was in downtown Chicago. I stopped for a moment before the Nativity Scene on Daley Plaza. That one is nearly life-size and, as expected, it offers all the usual players. Only if you look closely, you will see that baby Jesus is chained to the ground: ensuring that no prankster will carry him off.
For it happens every year, it seems. In fact, out of curiosity I looked again today and discovered that if you google “stolen baby Jesus” you will find dozens of news stories of the infant being taken from manger scenes all across the country. Year after year, in town upon town, from church corners to front yards, someone will think it sport to take baby Jesus away, out of the manger, often never to be seen again. Oh, there is the story of the city in Florida which attached a GPS tracking device to their baby Jesus and so they were able to locate the culprit quickly. And I confess, I did find some measure of amusement in the story of the baby Jesus who showed up eight months later on the owner’s front porch with photos of his adventures attached: from sitting on a bicycle to hanging out in someone’s kitchen. And I am especially fascinated this year by the story which even got picked up by USA Today. Evidently this year in one community in Wisconsin three different manger scenes from three different churches were robbed of their baby Jesus. Apparently, there is speculation that the thief is protesting the presence of Jesus in the manger before Christmas actually comes. I, along with many others, will be waiting to see if Jesus gets returned on Christmas Eve. So, given all of this, and yes, maybe they’ve had the baby Jesus stolen before…. the city of Chicago simply chains him to the ground.
Now I don’t stand in defense of anyone who would take Jesus from his rightful place in the manger — even if they do so on theological grounds. And yet, you and I who hear the Christmas Gospel once more in the days to come do so knowing that the real Jesus can’t be kept in the manger by means of chains. And the real Jesus? We don’t need to attach a GPS unit to him to be able to track him down. You and I encounter Jesus all the time in all sorts of places, although to be sure, perhaps often in unexpected ones.
Indeed, we discover him again whenever and wherever we are moved by the truth that Jesus was born humble and poor and that God still has the most tender of places in his heart for those for whom Christmas dinner will be hard to come by this year — and for whom a decent meal any day of the week might be only a dream.
We see Jesus in all kinds of places: whenever we recall that God loves deeply those who, like Mary and Joseph, are in danger of having no warm, safe place to sleep tonight.
And yes, we see Jesus once more whenever we recall that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, can still be seen embracing those who grieve, who suffer, who struggle the whole world over.
No, indeed, no GPS is needed. For Jesus is as near as the next act of generosity shown to someone for whom a moment of kindness will make all the difference — sometimes for the rest of their lives. Jesus is there in every act of selfless sacrifice offered for another. Jesus is right here in our own hearts changed by God’s great love for us that we would be among those who risk and give and love this world and all who inhabit it.
So do remember the story is yours again this year. Take a moment this Christmas to kneel with a child before a manger scene. Handle the figures in the creche. Wonder about this holy story once again and know that this birth in a faraway time and place has come to you once more and is for you and all the world Good News. And as you do so, remember this. We can’t chain Jesus to the ground. No, we can’t keep him in the manger. For in wondrous ways Jesus will keep breaking free and making his way into the world, into your life, into your very heart.
Indeed, I wonder where we’ll see him next, don’t you? In fact, we would do well in the days to come to keep our eyes and hearts peeled because I’m guessing Jesus is going to show up again almost before we know it. And for anyone out there who might be thinking about stealing baby Jesus? Well, there’s no need. Jesus is already yours. And the truth is we don’t have to wait for December 25th for that to be so.
- Think about your own favorite manger scene. Which figure(s) capture(s) the story for you this year?
- What are the Christmas traditions you carry on from your childhood? How do they continue to help you to embrace and be changed by the gifts of God this season?
- If Jesus cannot be chained to the ground, where is it that you have encountered him of late? Where do you expect to see him today?