The Sign of the Manger

The following is a homily for the Christmas mass during the night. The readings can be found here.

The manger. Is there a more important symbol of Christmas than the manger. As Easter has the cross, Christmas has the crib, the manger, the place where Jesus was laid after he was born. To many, it may seem like nothing: just ordinary wood, a pile of hay… and yet, the shepherds were told that this would be the sign for them, that they would see a child laid in it, a sign of God’s work in the world. To many, it may seem like nothing. Just ordinary wood, a pile of hay… and yet, it says everything we need to know about who Jesus is.

This manger is a sign of the fact that Jesus is willing to make sacrifices, endure pain. This is not a fancy incubator at an expensive hospital, not a sign of luxury or comfort. Forget about thread count!, this is a wooden box with hay in it, a place that none of you would place your own children.
And, yet, that is where our Lord—the God of the universe, the savior of the world—was laid to rest after his birth. It shows us that he did not come to be a king concerned with luxury and comfort, who would live in a palace while his subjects served him. No, Jesus came to be the least, to live a humble life, to endure pain and suffering for the sake of others. From the very start, even as a baby, the manger shows the world that his life is not about what he wants.

The manger also a sign that Jesus is a God who is was wiling to go among the outcasts. If you were placed in a manger after being born, I think it’s safe to say that you were not born in the place of the rich and powerful. He was not going to be visited by the “who’s who” of Bethlehem, the important and popular people of society. No, the manger was where the animals were. It was where “the help” stayed, the people not fit for the palace, not welcome at the table, not allowed in the Temple. We’re talking about shepherds, the people on the outside, people looked down upon by the rest of the world. These men were dirty, believed to be scoundrels, letting their animals trample on other people’s land and eat other people’s food. They were sinners and unclean, and most of society wanted nothing to do with them. But Jesus did. These were the ones that he chose to witness the amazement of his nativity. The manger makes known from the very start, even as a baby, that he associates with the people that no one else wants.

But there is one more thing, maybe the most important thing of all. The manger shows us that Jesus is a gift to the world, food to be eaten.
Remember what a manger is: it’s a food trough. This is the place that the animals would have eaten. This is their source of life, nourishment for their bodies. For many of us, the symbolism is often overlooked. The only experience have all year with a manger is on Christmas; outside of the nativity scene, we may never actually encounter one. This would not have been the case for those present. The shepherds, people hearing the Gospel proclaimed in the ancient world—they would have seen the connection immediately: this child is our source of life, this God is giving himself up as food for our nourishment. Jesus is not a God who stands on high and gives orders; he is not a God who waits from afar. No, he is a God who gives of his very life, gives his very body and blood as a meal for our sake, so that we can eat and have life. The manger makes known from the very start, even as a baby, that Jesus will be food for a tired people.

As a people who gather to celebrate the Eucharist, to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, it is not difficult to see the intimate connection between the manger and the altar: on both we find a miracle. Beyond any human comprehension the God of all the universe takes on flesh, the infinite, unknowable, powerful God is made present in finite, tangible, and weak substances. We can see God. We can touch God. We can receive God into our very lives. Just as Jesus was shown to be food in the manger, we know him to be food for us on the altar, giving us strength and direction and inspiration in a dark world. Upon these tables is the source of our life.

But they are something more. These two tables, the one on which he was born, the one on which he comes to life for us, are the place of invitation. The baby in the manger was not some spectacle, a wonder like we would find at the circus and then go back to our normal lives. It changed the shepherds. When they saw it, they knew that they needed to proclaim it to others; they knew that their lives would be forever different. So it is with the Eucharist. The body and blood of Jesus on this altar are not just miracles to look at, little miracles to say “wow” and then go back to who we were, unchanged. No, Jesus came to be like us—he lived as a baby in a manger, gave his body on this altar—so that we could become like him.

In receiving the Eucharist from this altar, coming to worship the baby on this manger, we do not simply come to witness a miracle, we come to be transformed by what we receive, and to take up the mission that he started. And so, just as the manger says a lot about who Jesus was, the altar that we gather around says a lot about us.

It says that we, too, are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain, that our life is not about material things or what makes us most comfortable, but about doing what’s right.

It says that we, too, are willing to go among the outcasts, that everyone is welcome at our table, even our enemies, even the dirty and lazy, even the one that everyone else makes fun of.

It says that we, too, are willing to give of our lives so that others may live, that we are willing to live as a sacrifice for the ones we love.

That is what the altar says about us, because that is what the manger says about Jesus. To many, it may seem like nothing. Just ordinary wood, a pile of hay… and yet, it says everything we need to know about who Jesus is. When you see the connection it has to the altar, it also says everything we need to know about us as well.

This Christmas, don’t just look for see a spectacle or a miracle. Receive the Lord into your lives, let him transform everything you do, and go out into the world as Christ for others.

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