Jesus in the manger is a powerful image

Bairbre Cahill considers what the ‘beautiful baby in the manger’ really symbolises

My son has a beautiful wooden crib. Every Christmas since he was born, Diarmuid’s godparents have sent him a few pieces of the crib set – one year a shepherd and a donkey, another year Joseph and a sheep and so on until Mary arrived and eventually the baby Jesus himself. It built up year by year and it now has pride of place on our mantelpiece for Christmas.

Each year it is Diarmuid who, after Mass on Christmas Eve, places the baby Jesus into the manger. I remember as a child lying in the darkness in front of our own crib at home, with the Christmas tree lights twinkling and one strategically-placed bulb peeping through the back of the stable to light up the scene of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and animals gathered round the baby Jesus.

I love the image of the crib but I am also aware that, if all that I encounter this Christmas is a pretty image of a baby in a manger and nothing more, then I will have robbed the Incarnation of its meaning and power. Baby Jesus in a manger is more than a cosy, holy picture. It is actually subversive – it turns everything upside down and inside out.

Here in this baby is the fullest expression of God’s gift of himself to us. Here is our God who becomes vulnerable, weak and powerless so that he can meet us in our humanity. The Incarnation is about God’s desire to be with us, to live in relationship with us. In this beautiful child is one who will be teacher, healer, peace maker, the one who sets us free, who challenges, who is crucified yet is Lord of life. The challenge for us is to meet Jesus in the fullness of who he is.

So at Christmas we are invited, like the shepherds and the wise men to come and meet Jesus. We can imagine that, for the shepherds and the magi, life was never the same again.

The shepherds may have gone back to their sheep but with a new awareness, an experience of glory, a realisation of God’s presence in their own lives. Our lives get so busy, so full. It is easy to lose focus on what matters most. This Christmas when we look at the crib, we are invited to focus again on the face of Jesus.

We are asked to recognise the full potential of what is here. Like the shepherds, we are invited to allow our lives to be turned upside down.

There is a beautiful book by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen called The Fox’s Tale. In this story, a fox that has had his eye on a few tasty lambs follows the shepherds to the stable in Bethlehem, curious to see what is happening. It is a great way to get children thinking about the Christmas story.

Even without that particular book, we can enter into the Gospel story in a way that makes it fresh and engaging. Read Luke’s account through slowly – chapter 2 verses 1-20. Now put yourself in the story – imagine that you are one of the characters or even that you are the donkey or a little mouse in the stable.

Using your imagination, allow all your senses to bring the story to life. What do you see, hear, smell and feel? What is happening? What is the atmosphere like?

Enter into the story and be present to all that is going on. What strikes you?

Saint Ignatius called this way of praying “imaginative Gospel contemplation”. Children just call it great fun! It is a wonderful way of bringing the Gospel to life.

We meet Jesus – baby, teacher, healer, crucified one, risen Lord – in the pages of the Gospel. How about in our own lives? Where do we meet Jesus there?

We cannot return to Bethlehem to look for him in a stable. What is the star that will guide us to where he is? The reality is we don’t have to go far. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

It is in the relationships and events of our day-to-day lives that we will encounter Jesus. Who is the person in my life who loves and teaches and challenges me? Here is the face of Jesus.

Who is the one in my life who urges me to see what limits and restricts my living and helps me to move towards healing? Here is the touch of Jesus.

Love and laughter

Who are the people who bring love, laughter and tenderness into my world? Here is the heart of who Jesus is.

What are the situations where I find myself called to be a peacemaker, to challenge injustice, to stand up for those who are bowed down by suffering, ill health or discrimination? Here the spirit of Jesus is moving.

Through baptism we become part of the body of Christ and it is our baptismal responsibility to make Jesus’ presence an ongoing reality in our world. We are part of the Incarnation.

So this Christmas, thinking of that beautiful baby in the manger, let’s pay attention to how we love each other, how we forgive, how we reach out to those on the margins, how we care for those who are hurting. Let’s consciously be part of the Incarnation.