Column by Father Jonathan Dickson
With even a brief look at social media during the holidays we are bound to come across messages that protest the elimination of Christ from Christmas by what most of us would call the secular world. While this term “secular world” is much more complex than most people realize, these protests against removing Christ from Christmas are well founded. When we talk about keeping Christ in Christmas, what do we really mean? While admitting that I do not have all the answers, I would like to offer a reflection that at least hints at what happens at Christmas with the hope that it might help the reader “keep Christ in Christmas.”
Simply put, on Christmas, God is in the manger. While we could spend a lifetime reflecting on this simple statement, we have to attempt to appreciate the fact that the God of all creation has somehow become incarnate in an innocent child and lies poverty stricken in a feeding trough. It is in this most vulnerable of ways that God comes to us. Dietrich Boenhoeffer offers this poignant reflection:
We cannot approach the manger of the Christ Child in the same way we approach the cradle of another child. Rather, when we go to his manger, something happens, and we cannot leave it again unless we have been judged or redeemed. Here we must either collapse or know the mercy of God directed toward us…
What does it mean that such things are said about the Christ child? Those who want to take it (simply) as a way of speaking will do so and continue to celebrate Advent and Christmas as before with pagan indifference. For us it is not just a way of speaking. For that’s just it: it is God himself, the Lord and Creator of all things, who is so small here, who is hidden here in the corner, who enters into the plainness of the world, who meets us in the helplessness and defenselessness of a child, and wants to be with us…
The throne of God in the world is not on human thrones, but in human depths, in the manger. Standing around his throne there are no flattering vassals but dark, unknown, questionable figures who cannot get their fill of this miracle and want to live entirely by the mercy of God.
Until we allow ourselves to be brought to our knees by the Christ Child in the manger, the meaning of Christmas will be lost on us. We will continue to manipulate the message of Christmas as we project our own ideologies on to what it means to say God is in the manger. Pride, arrogance, greed, control, and manipulation will continue to govern our lives as we assume the modern understanding of power and we tell ourselves that we are simply making our mark on the world.
The Child in the manger has no time for this. He testifies that God rules through humility, weakness, and poverty. And he insists that there is not an ounce of violence in our all-powerful God. The child born into a manger and abiding in a stable built for farm animals promises us that God continues to plunge into the depths of the human condition, and this is where he chooses to rule. When we come before the Nativity this Christmas, it should shake us to our very core and it should challenge every preconceived notion we have of Jesus Christ. If I cannot embrace the poverty and humility of the manger, I will never embrace Christ in any other part of my Christian life.
We are tired and worn out because we refuse to unite our own weakness with the Child in the manger who is the epitome of vulnerability. We become more exhausted as we look at a world which so often seems like it is not getting any better. And in all of this, we long for greater experiences of faith and hope. We pray that this will all be made right. I beg you; come to the manger this Christmas vulnerable, embracing your human frailty, and with defenses down. Then hopefully this December 25th you will be brought to your knees because the baby in the manger makes the infinite promise that we never go at this alone. I cannot think of a better reason for hope. The narrative turns a new page on Christmas day; and the greatest story ever told begins again. If you can think of any better news, I would love to hear it!
Merry Christmas! Rejoice! God is in the manger!!!
Father Jonathan Dickson is the Parochial Vicar at Our Lady of Victory Parish in State College, Chaplain at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, and Diocesan Director of Ongoing Formation for the Clergy.