Meditating on the Christ in the manger
Standing or kneeling before the Christmas crèche has always struck me with the wonder of God. Looking down at that wondrous child, while firmly believing who He truly is, there opens in the mind the unveiling of the divine mystery that we call the Incarnation of God. Lying in the humble manger or crib, we believe, is the very Creator of the universe who has come to set man free, restore human innocence, and open for us the path to glory. When one thinks about that for just a moment, kneeling seems to be the only proper response, like St. Peter in the boat who falls to his knees and confesses himself a sinner who is not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord.
Romano Guardini wonderfully captured this Christian sentiment in his book The Lord: “The idea that everyone is strong enough to bear immediate contact with God is false, and conceivable only by an age that has forgotten what it means to stand in the direct ray of divine power, that substitutes sentimental religious ‘experience’ for the overwhelming reality of God’s presence.” In that little child in the crib, the Christian mind senses a very real presence of God, even if only artistically portrayed in this manger scene.
Saint Peter was focusing on the power of God exercised by Jesus in the miraculous catch of fish. What strikes me in the crib is the innocence, purity and humility of God manifested most wonderfully in the Christ child lying there in the straw, in swaddling clothes, absorbing and keeping warm by the love of Mary and Joseph who can’t take their eyes off him. Innocence always captures the human heart, perhaps even more than purity or humility, and this child is pure innocence, unstained by Original Sin, pure of heart through and through. Sinful man longs for that purity and innocence of Paradise, whether he will admit it or not, whether he’s even conscious of it or not. Man was made in the image and likeness of God, and his purity and innocence was the source of tremendous joy, until it was lost by that fatal rebellion of our first parents.
The truth is that we can barely fathom what that original innocence was like in the heart of man, what the truly pure human person was like. But when God chooses to become one of us, and enters the world in this perfect innocence and purity and humility, we get a sense of how great such qualities are, and that experience draws us to the child and to his mother, the only other perfectly innocent person that has ever lived, after the fall of man.
St. Augustine meditated deeply on this mystery, and he reminds us of the depth of the gift that comes our way in the Incarnation of God. He writes, “You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy.” When Augustine speaks of being freed from sinful flesh, he is well aware that this will not be fully attained in this life. This restoration of innocence in the flesh is an eschatological promise. The child is both a fulfillment and a promise.
One day we will truly experience that innocence in our own being, and what it means to be pure of heart and perfectly so. If our heart does not long for that perfect innocence and purity, it’s a reminder that something has gone terribly wrong in the human soul. Meanwhile, by the mercy of God we are able to acquire a certain but true innocence, purity and humility, which fits us for worshiping this child and leading a full human life.
Psalm 24 says, “Who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart.” And yet we know that our hands are not clean, and our hearts are not pure, at least not in the sense the Psalmist speaks about. But we look forward to the heavenly liturgy, when we will be truly fitted for perfect worship of our God.
And Psalm 51 says, “oh purify me, then I shall be clean; … A pure heart create for me, O God.” Only God can purify us; only God can restore our innocence. That is certain. But he has promised to do so, and the child lying in that crib, pure innocence, is that promise. One day we shall be made truly holy with the holiness of God; truly innocent with the innocence of God; truly humble with the humility of God, all of which are manifested there, in the child. That’s why, like Mary and Joseph, we cannot take our eyes off Him. He is the final wonder of God’s creative activity.
Guardini sums up the transcendent significance of this child for mankind and for human history in a brief sentence: “With his coming, all that had been before fell into its historical place “before the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” anticipating or preparing for that hour; all that was to be, faced the fundamental choice between acceptance and rejection of the Incarnation.”
This fundamental choice is what really determines the destinies of individuals and nations. He is God’s final word, God’s definitive offer of mercy toward and restoration of the human person. To the degree that He is accepted, there is hope; to the degree that He is rejected, hope is lost.
Every Christmas there is displayed in the crèche the possibility of this renewal of hope, and every Christmas there is renewed the unquenchable joy for those who place their hope in this child, above all the hope that one day we will know his innocence not by faith but in the purity of our souls.