Certainly, there are many, far more qualified than I am, who have attempted to answer this question: “What is the meaning of the child in the manger?” Almost a decade ago, in his 2014 Christmas Eve Homily, Pope Francis made a proposition that has remained with me ever since. I’ve wrestled with it, been at peace with it, prayed with it, wrote a short reflection book using it, and wrestled with it some more. In my prayers and meditations, the Holy Spirit has given me a few crumbs and I hope to offer them to you here; a meager gift for this octave of the Christmas season. Perhaps this meditation will help someone give pause in the blur this season often becomes.
Pope Francis said:
“On this holy night, while we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close? “But I am searching for the Lord” – we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to seek me, find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant’s presence is: do I allow God to love me?”
1. God places his Son in our hands.
I recall one of my fist spiritual directors asking me, “When you pray, to whom are you praying?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Are you praying to God the Father, to the Spirit, to the Son, to one of the saints? With whom are you having a conversation? What does the relationship look like?”
What continued in that session was a revelation. I had never really thought much about it. I had ordinarily been speaking to 30-year-old Jesus (When not having a conversation with one of the saints). But I had never really seen Jesus as fully human in one sense. I never considered that he had a life, a childhood, teenage years, just like I did. I hadn’t considered having a relationship with him just like I might with one of my own infant children. This drew me to recall the first moment the doctor placed my daughter in my arms.
I remember being terrified to break her; a tremendous responsibility to protect her; a complete incapacity to care for her correctly, even if I had known what that looked like. I had to grow up. A lot. Everything just got real. There’s no fake it until I make it here. If I don’t make it, she gets hurt and that will hurt me like nothing else.
This is some of what I considered of what Pope Francis said. The infinite God of the universe, who created the sun, moon, and stars, was born naked and helpless. Without the love of a family, he would perish. God himself, placed his very being into the hands of a human mother and father. He gave up all of the divine power, for the embrace of his mother.
I’m going to screw this up at some point, this relationship. I have two choices. Do I harden myself and keep it all at arms length out of fear of being hurt, or do I suffer what it is to love another? There is no suffering without love. If I choose not to love, I can avoid suffering altogether.
God is placing his Son in our hands. To love Him, means to suffer whatever that relationship brings, both joys and sorrows, the good I do and the messes I make. I suppose this is some of what it means to care for our faith. Will we keep it at arms length? Will we treat it as if it were someone else’s child; a kid we babysit on the weekends; Perhaps a grandchild we only spoil on holidays? Or will we embrace Him as our own, to fear dropping Him, to protect Him like a “pearl of great price”? Will we fight for this when we make a mistake, or will we simply walk away?
2. But I am searching for the Lord…
As a father, I can tell you, the only thing better than loving your babies is letting them love you back. So frequently in life, we desperately want to do good things for our children, to love them by working hard, by stressing about… well… all the things. Over the years, particularly the teenage years, things can become increasingly complex. But sometimes, especially when they are little, it’s important to just let yourself be held by them. To give them an opportunity to love you in return. Too frequently in our religious life and vocation, we consider all of the things we need to do: seeking God, following the rules, doing this or that ministry, the tithes, the penance. Sometimes, it never seems to be enough. Jesus wants to love you but, that’s a tough thing when we’ve built up a thick skin, or when we are too busy praying to turn and look him in the eye.
While we’ve been searching everywhere for Him, He’s been waiting there, yes, right there next to you. Am I ignoring him? Am I hiding from him? Am I avoiding his cry because I’m too busy with other things? Are my hands too dirty to pick him up? The infant son of God is here! He has been here with me the whole time. He simply wants me to pick him up out of that crib, so that He can love me. Right now, he’s just a baby. He’s not interested in what you’ve done or where you came from, only the warmth of your embrace.
3. St. Anthony and Pope St. John Paul II can help!
Seeing God in this way might seem strange, but it’s not. Apparently, it’s quite normal among the saints.
A recent spiritual director suggested that I spend more time looking at the lives of the saints and one struck me as especially interesting. It was the story of St. Anthony of Padua. It seems, he had a unique relationship with the infant Jesus. So close was this relationship, that on his death bed, the infant Jesus appeared to him and rested in his arms until he breathed his last. It also seems there are other stories of this relationship which is why the saint is often depicted holding the infant God. Prayer for him was not a one-way conversation, but a very simple relationship. I hold Him. He holds me. That’s it. That’s enough.
I have heard it said too of Pope Saint John Paul II, that it was a unique experience to pray with him in his private chapel. One Jewish friend of his remarked that he remembered a very simple but profound experience of simply “being in the presence of God.” No words were said. No ritual took place. There was simple kneeling in silence. Prayer for the late pontiff was not so much about spoken words, so much as simply being with God. I’m with Him. He’s with me. That’s it. That’s enough.
So, what then is the meaning of the presence of the child in the manger? I think it has mostly to do with the sign given by the prophet Isaiah (7:14), “…they will call Him, Immanuel (which means, “God with us”).” He is HERE! He wants me to be here with Him. Will I accept the gift of God’s own son. Will I allow him to love me? Will I risk what love means? Will I hold it near my heart? Will I never let Him go?