The Absurdity of the Manger

At Church this morning, Fr. Dan shared how following the Christmas services, as he and the staff tidied up the Church, they found a small wrapped present that had been left in front of the statue of baby Jesus in the manger scene. Upon opening it, they discovered a piece of paper with a hand drawn, crayola-colored heart. One of the children in the parish had wanted to give Jesus a gift, and in their infinite wisdom had decided that their heart was the best gift they could give.

This beautiful, adorable, and yet undeniably piercing story, paired with the celebration of the Magi who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to lay before the infant Christ, seems to demand of each of us: What gift will we give to the Lord? Will we give him our heart? And what of the heart that seems too broken, dirty, or damaged to give?

As I sat pondering the pastor’s words, these questions rolling around in my mind, I was reminded of a reflection I had on Christmas day. My prayers that day seemed to circle around Jesus’ birth in a manger, of all places. Christ’s manger birth is not new news. It’s a detail included in so many Christmas carols. We hear it every time we hear the Christmas story. But this year, it struck me differently. This year his birth in a barn amidst donkeys, oxen, and lamb, his crib that was no more than a feeding trough, and his ragged and torn swaddling cloth were more than just lines from a favorite Christmas hymn. This year the somewhat disturbing image of the God of the Universe coming to earth as a helpless baby and being born in a forgotten, filthy place, struck me as absurd.

Knowing that God’s plan is perfect, his wisdom unerring, I asked him why he had chosen such an entrance. His answer was clear: Because often we, his children, do not have hearts that look like thrones awaiting his arrival. They are not immaculately cleaned out and adorned in jewels of every virtue. Our hearts rarely look like prestigious castles, fit for Christ the King, God of all Creation. Instead, and much more often, they are dirtied by selfishness or pride, filled with commitments and distractions, and are no less absurd resting places for God than a dirty manger in Bethlehem. In that moment, I thanked the Lord for his perfect choice to be born in a manger, for it serves as a constant reminder that no matter the state of our hearts, he desires to reside in them. All we have to do is follow the example of the child from my Church and gift our hearts to Jesus, exactly as they are.