When I was a little girl I used to wonder what it would have been like for the Virgin Mary when she was with her child Jesus as He lay newborn in a manger. I would sit before our home crèche scene and wonder what thoughts must have gone through her head. I would ponder what it was like for the shepherds in the fields to have angels appear, announcing the birth of the Child with great joy; what must it have been like to have gone to a stable filled with such holiness? I wondered what it would have been like to have been in the entourage of the magi. Would I have ridden a camel? Would I have sat next to the bags filled with frankincense or myrrh? I often wished I had been there, and I thought of how “lucky” those folks must have been to have seen and maybe even touched Jesus. While I am older and hopefully wiser than I was in childhood, I still wonder about those things, though my thoughts are a bit more sophisticated than they were then. But you know what? I hope my thoughts are not so sophisticated that I lose the wonder of it all. In fact, I hope that never happens. I say this because it is that very wonder and joy that keeps us on our knees in front of the manger alongside shepherds and kings, sinners and saints, in the midst of animals and a bright star.
I am going to guess that many of us have dreamed things such as these, of what it would have been like to have been present at the stable in Bethlehem or at some other time in the life of Jesus. These are not the dreams of children only. I did not know it at the time, but my fascination with the crèche scene as a little girl was a type of meditation. Today I believe, like St. Ignatius of Loyola, that when we ‘daydream’ in such a way, that is, if it is in the context of prayer, we are indeed in the scene. Since God is Lord of all time and space, He can transport us spiritually to actually being in a gospel scene, participating in that upon which we are meditating. In other words, it is real.
In meditating on the Nativity scene we would be with Mary and Joseph as they were kneeling before their baby, who they knew to be the Son of God Most High. We could imagine what Mary is feeling, having had this Child within her body, His blood and her blood coursing through her veins, and now looking upon Him lying in the manger. We could imagine what Joseph is feeling as he looks upon this Child and His mother who have been entrusted to his care. But we would also feel our own feelings and think our own thoughts as we participate in the event. For example, we could join the retinue of the magi, alighting on the spot on which the star rested. Indeed, what is it like as we dismount a camel, and walk into that stable? Do we drop to our knees, or are we so transfixed that we can hardly breathe and hardly move? Do we dare ask to hold the baby, as we often do with the tiny, newborn children of our friends and family? I think Mary would smile and place the child in our arms if we were to ask. (I would love to see a crèche set someday with a king or shepherd holding the Child!)
Years ago, while attending the parish where I grew up, I saw something I will never forget. Just before Mass on Christmas Day, a young mother brought her little son to the front of the church to see the nearly life-sized crèche scene. The boy, who could not have been more than three years old, voluntarily placed his stuffed lamb next to the crib. After Mass, his mother tried to get him to retrieve it, but he would have none of it. He insisted that he gave it to the baby Jesus for Him to have. That little lamb remained there for the rest of the Christmas season. I often think of the sacrifice of that little boy and I think it was as great a sacrifice as that of the magi because it came from his heart. The gifts of the magi, gold, frankincense and myrrh, no doubt sustained the Holy Family in their need, but the greater gifts they gave were in the sacrifices of undertaking such a trip. The material gifts were expensive ones, but in truth they gave more in the preparation, the rigors of the journey, the length of time away from their homes, in the dangers of the terrain, and from King Herod when they arrived in Judea. It was not the monetary value of what they gave that was important; it was the intentions of their hearts to seek out the newborn King and worship Him.
It is important for us to take time to have our own epiphany before the newborn King. We can ask ourselves what it has taken for us to get to this moment, in this year, on this day, when we come before the manger to adore. In doing so, we will find that we are more like the kings than we thought. Like them, we can give Him gold: we can give what we are able to the very poor to which He first came. Jesus was of the anawim, God’s poor ones. If we give to the poor, we are giving to Him. We can give Him frankincense; we can give him the sweet-smelling scent of our prayers rising up to Him. We can offer sincere, heartfelt intercession for those who are in need and for peace in our world, and we can offer Him our presence, listening to His word. We can offer Him myrrh: we can give Him our lives, dedicating ourselves anew as His disciples and friends. We can live that which He taught to the best of our ability, offering the cracked and broken vessels that we are. And in doing so, we have offered Him the whole of our lives, just as He offered the whole of His life for us.
Our meditation should not, no, it cannot, end here. Just as the kings had to leave the stable at some point, so do we. And just as their experience at the manger changed their lives, so too, it must change ours. Therefore, our meditation cannot end at the crèche. We must take what we learn there back into the journey of our daily lives. And what do we take away with us? I think that we take joy with us. We were face to face with the joy of the angels, singing “Glory to God in the Highest” and with that of Mary and Joseph, who are so very holy. We were kneeling in front of the manger, filled with the joy of all Creation, the very Son of God!
We take away hope. We have the hope of God’s promise, fulfilled in this Child.
We take away love. We have met love, who is God, in the baby Jesus. This love has filled our hearts such that we are compelled to share it with others.
We take away humility. The humility of God who became a tiny baby, and the lowliness of the scene, moves our hearts to recognize our own poverty.
We take away compassion and mercy. Neither the Child, nor His parents, nor the angels had said we were not worthy to be there. No one is worthy, but all are invited, so we leave with compassion and mercy in our hearts.
Therefore we are compelled to take joy, hope, love, humility, mercy and compassion with us as we return to what is our normal, day to day life. The epiphany we have experienced is probably beyond words to express; therefore we must express it with our actions. We can continue to bring our gift to the Lord by bringing joy to the joyless, hope to the hopeless, and love to the lonely and those who think they are not able to be loved. We can bring justice from the Son of Justice; mercy and compassion to those who are our enemies, those who are different from ourselves, those who are difficult to love, and those who have hurt us. We have come to see Him in everyone because we have gazed upon His face in the manger. In other words, we are learning to recognize Him in our brothers and sisters. That is the gift of the wise men to Jesus and to us. Let us spend time this week learning from them as we gather at the stable side by side.
May we have the courage to approach the manger alongside the kings, bearing the gift of ourselves! May we have the eyes of our heart opened to the reality of Love who lies in the manger! May we have an epiphany which changes our hearts as we stand before the One who brings healing to our world! May we truly learn to recognize Jesus in all our brothers and sisters as we gather side by side at the manger! And in our gazing upon the Lord as a tiny baby, may our hearts be filled with joy such that we are never the same! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, not just in the stable, but in the world! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top image is called The Adoration of the Magi by a Renaissance painter named Zanobi Strozzi. He was the top student of one of my favorite artists, Bl. Fra Angelico. For more on Strozzi go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zanobi_Strozzi
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called The Nursing Icon of the Mother of God. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/249-the-nursing-icon-of-the-mother-of-god
The painting of the Kings came from a greeting card from a number of years ago.
The last painting is called The Adoration of the Shepherds (1609) by Caravaggio. You can find it and also an explanation of the painting at http://www.caravaggio.org/adoration-of-the-shepherds.jsp
Heart Speaks to Heart