The nativity story starts out in Rome with Caesar’s decree to the entire known world. The story continues in Nazareth where Joseph and Mary start their journey. It follows them to Bethlehem. It moves very specifically with the couple into some sort of shelter intended for animals. And the birth story culminates in a very precise place: a manger. From Caesar’s palace of power to an animal trough. Luke deliberately names these shifts in settings before zeroing in on Jesus’s first bed in his first home. Luke’s main theological aim seems to be to illustrate that God’s trajectory departs from the expected sources of power and arrives in a place of humble love. If we look more closely at the manger, it’s possible a finite box of hay that contained the infinite God holds yet more meaning for us.
Have you ever noticed, for instance, the manger is mentioned 3 times in a scant 9 verses that are at the core of Jesus’ birth story? This detail emphasizes what Walter Brueggemann calls the Christian “scandal of the particular.” God becoming flesh is understood in the particulars of this story. Surely the repetition of the word manger signals its importance to the story. In fact, the angel actually tells the shepherds in the field that the manger will be a “sign” to them. In that way the narrator thus tells us as readers that the manger is a sign, a symbol, within the story. For folks like us who still seek the Christ, who still believe that the Sacred can be found in the ordinary and even in the rough and rude parts of life, the manger reminds us to look for God in unexpected places.
More specifically still, the manger partly signifies that we can experience God in places where creatures come together to be fed, literally and figuratively.
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was all about the food. Luke introduces Jesus through the manger in Bethlehem, a town that means “House of Bread.” Luke repeatedly depicts the adult Jesus eating and giving food to others throughout his ministry. Luke often reports that Jesus described God’s realm as being like a great banquet. Luke says Jesus concluded his ministry with one last meal that marked him forever in the memory of his followers. The baby whose cradle fed animals became the man who fed the multitudes and ate with sinners and called himself the bread of life and shared a final meal with his friends in hopes they’d continue to remember him when later they shared supper.
Two millennia later, we keep meeting the Christ whenever we feed the hungry in Jesus’s name, wherever we practice the ritual of sharing a simple communal meal with a spirit of compassion. We become the body of Christ and preserve not only Jesus’ story, not only his ways, but his very life—when we recognize the sacredness of daily bread and selfless sharing. The faith community that named itself Open Table knows something about the ways our world and our mindset can be transformed when we feed the hungry and when we feed our spirits.
And who can separate the season of Christmas from the foods of the holiday? A few Christmases ago, my sister, mother, daughter, and I gathered in my parents’ kitchen to begin preparing yet another meal for the rest of our gathered family. We had barely finished cleaning up after the last meal when my father entered the kitchen to scavenge for leftovers. While the cooks were girding our aprons for the next frenzy of cooking, Daddy cleared his throat, and we anticipated hearing from him a suggestion for an item on the next meal’s menu. You see, Daddy is always planning the next meal. And he often starts planning the next morning’s breakfast menu while polishing off a sumptuous supper. He’s been known to drive for miles to find one elusive ingredient for a dish he suddenly craves. Food—very specific food—is always on his mind. So you can imagine our shock when Daddy looked sympathetically upon the Christmas cooks and suggested we shouldn’t work so hard on the next meal because, after all—and here’s where his tone sounded uncharacteristically philosophical—“it’s not about the food.”
There was stunned silence for several beats. Then we started laughing. “It’s NOT about the food”—from the man who had ordered the prime rib for Christmas dinner months ahead. “It’s not about the food,” from the man who had begged my mother to make yet another batch of lemon bars and an extra carrot cake before the relatives started arriving. And he said it so very earnestly. I still don’t know if he meant it to be funny or not, but the cooks in the kitchen lost it. Who was this man? Coming from anyone else, that line would not have been funny, but we laughed until we cried, and as soon the hysteria died down, one of us would say, imitating his earnest tone, “After all, it’s not about the food”—and that would set us off again. For the rest of that holiday, we’d find ways to insert “It’s not about the food” into almost every conversation. It remains a running joke with us. It’s not about the food. But we know in our family it’s ALL about the food. And maybe, theologically speaking, the food it what it's all about.
Have you seen the bumper sticker that says, “What if the hokey pokey really IS what it’s all about?”
Well, what if being a follower of Jesus really IS all about . . . the food. Maybe Jesus, born in a feeding trough, lived and died to feed us literal and figurative food.
You and I meet Jesus each Sunday in the sharing of bread and wine. The Table reminds us not only of Jesus’s death but of his birth--and of his ministry to feed ALL people, body and soul. We become more Christ-like whenever we share bread and wine, when we visit the manger/table in grateful memory, when we practice the oneness of table fellowship, our centering and central rite.
Some Christians maintain that Jesus’s purpose was to die, to shed his blood, to become a human sacrifice to appease a God who can forgive us only if someone else takes our punishment for us. Like many other Christians, I think of Jesus’s purpose as declaring, through his unique way of revealing God clothed in flesh, that human life, in all its messiness, is good; that love triumphs over brutal domination. Richard Rohr lifts up one small line from “O Holy Night” to make that point. Rohr notes “that when God came among us in the shape and form of Jesus, suddenly “the soul felt its worth!” . . . When God mirrored us through the entrance, invitation, and eyes of Jesus, the certainty of our redemption was once and for all given and accomplished. . . . We needed no further blood sacrifice to reveal God's intentions toward us. We were already saved by the gaze from the manger.”
And I would add that, in gazing at the child in a MANGER, we know that we are fed, not by bread alone but with the bread of life and with living waters that satisfy our deepest hungers and thirsts.
Because every culture offers false and fast foods that promise to satisfy but do not. Our culture produces and markets a thousand ways to satiate us, calm us, distract us, and enslave us. Like junk food, these are things that the more we eat them, the more we eat them. What strange strategies we learn to calm our fears and assuage our guilt and fill our need for intimacy. We shop though we never accumulate enough stuff. We secure our possessions but never feel safe. We compete for the signs of success but always feel someone else is nipping at our heels. We watch mind-numbing television long after it stops entertaining us. We use sex recreationally rather than relationally. We play video or computer games to escape into other worlds while our problems compound. We drug our bodies with caffeine or pharmaceuticals or alcohol or food, paying little heed to our physical needs, and we reap those consequences. We engage in frenetic busyness and are distracted—for a little while. And in all these ways we anesthetize our pain without healing our hurt. These are not things that make us bad people. These are things that impede our human growth. They feed our false images of who we are without nourishing our true selves, without showing us ourselves in the mirror of Jesus’s eyes.
But the food at Christ’s Table helps us resist, as Daniel did under Babylonian captivity, the foods an alien culture entices us to eat. The food of our culture hooks us, but the healthier menu Jesus feeds us can free us.
First, however, we have to come to the manger. And see God in unexpected ways. This receptacle for animal fodder holds a newly birthed baby. And birth itself, when not Hollywood-ized, makes us uncomfortable. This birth is proximate to peasants and dumb animals. This manger is too close to the messiness and pain and, frankly, the indignity, of birth. To approach the manger, the scent of blood still in the air, is to recall that birthing often comes close to dying. To be reborn into a new mindset is risky. To worship at the manger is to honor the risk and the sacrifice of birthing—a sacrifice that includes giving up one’s dignity in the undignified birthing process. We usually don’t speak of this, especially in church, but the truth is . . . it is not possible to keep one’s dignity while giving birth. Nor is it possible to keep one’s dignity while being reborn into a transformed consciousness or what the Bible calls repentance when individuals turn and become a new creature or a culture becomes a new people.
Yet in the midst of the severe birth pangs, dignity seems a small thing to sacrifice for the sake of a child on whom the whole world depends, for the sake of your life that can be new. To give up one’s dignity is part of love’s duty. Parents recall that with the birth of your child you walked out into the rest of your life knowing you could thereafter be wounded more deeply than you’d ever before imagined because you’d given your whole heart to that vulnerable infant lying in a hospital crib—or a manger.
It is a terrible and wondrous thing to be as naked as a birthing mother or newborn baby. However, Naked Spirituality, the name of Brian McLaren’s latest book, is exactly what is called for.
We want to clothe Christmas Day in strings of lights and gaudy garland and layers of wrapping paper. We cover over the messiness and risks of deep love. Sentimentalizing Christmas Day, we settle for cheap cheeriness. But the spirituality of the manger comes only after searing birth pangs and the deepening realization that a helpless human now depends totally on the milk your breasts produce and the warmth your arms provide and the good sense your brain usually generates. Naked manger joy is then swaddled in rags, lying there with no pretense of dignity or power. And Love grips us. What we love in the crude Christmas manger may seem ridiculous to a world bent on materialism and militarism, on control and power. What we learn at manger-side is to make ourselves vulnerable enough to trust again, to forgive others and ourselves, to face into life directly, and to laugh full-throttle.
Friends, one thing I love about our faith community is our willingness to share our deepest selves and be “real” with one another. What I loved about last Sunday’s Lesson and Carols service was seeing Susan and Marquale and Charles and Peter do the musical equivalent of walking a tightrope across this sanctuary. They risked their personal comfort to sing and play with transparent grace. We forget what courage that takes to be so exposed. And today—Karen carried us to God’s mystery with movements emanating from her soul. And Patrick stood before you in faith that his notes would reach the ears of strangers who would hear his heart as well. And their dignity has, in faith, been gambled for the sake of something more satisfying that comfortable security.
Others will offer you products that will purportedly heal your spirit and save a hurting world. Others hold out commodities to buy and experiences to purchase. But Christmas in a manger is not what Madison Avenue wants to sell.
After all, who can “buy” the idea that a donkey’s dinner dish became God’s home on earth and the portal from the infinite to the finite and back again? Absurdity! Foolishness! Or as Paul would explain to the church at Corinth: “The message [about Jesus’s way] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being rescued, it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18)!
Away in a manger . . . God rescues us by feeding us and freeing us. We kneel at a manger and see the bread of life and the vulnerable face of God, and so we face our deepest needs. We kneel because if we try to protect our false dignity, our hearts will not break and that vulnerable baby cannot save us. We kneel to the absurdity of Jesus’s upside down kingdom. We kneel to concede our lack of control and to trust not in the love of power but in the power of love. We kneel. A baby cries. A mother ponders.