The emptiness of the world before Christ, and the human heart without him, is echoed by the blank spaces all over the West where children should be.
This year, as every year, the crèche has sat empty of God. The shepherds knelt, the angels sang, the ox and ass and eager lamb looked on, even Joseph and Mary stared down adoringly—at a vacant manger. There was no Infant here. When people knelt before this nativity scene to pray, they closed their eyes, as if averting their gaze from a lovely face that gaped with a missing tooth.
For all the lights and wreaths that have hung since before Thanksgiving, it isn’t Christmas yet—as the good men of the Holy Name Society (who craft the crèche) remind us by withholding the Jesus bambino for four long weeks, until the eve of the feast.
So it goes at Immaculate Conception, the New York City church where I was baptized and grew up helping to construct the nativity scene each year, and where I expect someday to be buried. Each year, through the weeks of Advent, I pass the empty manger and feel a potent twinge at the desolate cradle—a hint, perhaps, of how expectant parents must yearn, and how the Israelites groaned for a Messiah.
The nativity scene remains an exquisite piece of popular pious art—potent enough to keep its hold on our imaginations, amidst the tinsel, the tipsy parties and the toys. Begun by the man his contemporaries called “a second Christ,” St. Francis of Assisi, this custom of assembling wood, or plastic, or papier-mâché to re-present the scene of Jesus’ birth anchors the feast less in the mind than in the heart, reminding all that first and foremost this is a feast of birth.
A Feast of Human Birth
Of human birth. The God we Christians adore climbed down from the pillar of fire, emerged from the burning bush, to walk among us. He didn’t, like Zeus, impersonate a swan or bull, or like Apollo a golden youth. Instead, He lay down as a helpless infant among the beasts, and placed Himself entirely at our mercy. So likewise would He, one day, lay down His life.
Herein lies a paradox. Because the dominant note in the life of Jesus, for all His tenderness toward sinners and humble victimhood, was not passivity or surrender. He knew Himself the son of kings and Son of God, and so He spoke “as one with authority.” He challenged the men of might and Mammon who’d hijacked their ancestral religion for pride or gain. He displayed a healthy loyalty first to fellow members of His noble, ancient race—but compassion toward foreigners—as with the gentile woman who sought her daughter’s healing:
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour (Matt. 15:24-28).
He rebuked the wind and waves, drove demons out, threatened to tear down Solomon’s temple, then emptied it of moneychangers with a whip of knotted cords. With His life at stake, He displayed neither fear nor fawning—deigning only to speak to the procurator of mighty Rome a few sarcastic words. And death itself, which claimed Him gruesomely, He shook off like an ill-fitting coat, to emerge alive from the underworld—as Byzantine icons wonderfully depict—leading an army of the righteous dead, from Adam to Abraham, Melchizidech to the Maccabees.
Knowing all this, one awaits the Infant with a hint of fear. When the babe is laid at last in the straw, it seems to radiate. The awe on the Wise Men’s faces now makes perfect sense—as if they hear in the Child’s heartbeat the ticking of a clock, which once it stops will blast apart the sinews of the world.