The Empty Manger

It’s a Catholic custom not to place the statue of the baby Jesus in the Nativity Scene under the tree or on the grounds of the parish until Christmas.  I never really gave this custom much thought until this year.

Now it occurs to me before that this nativity scene with the empty manger could represent my life.  The life, really, of any believer who accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 

As one moves through life, he or she is continually invited to choose relationship with Christ more consciously and completely.  This happens in a myraid of ways, most of them not overtly religious, but all of them marked by a deeper commitment to the important relationships which sustain us.

Eventually, this business of choosing Christ alters the life experience of the believer so that, as in the nativity scene, the dominant characteristic of that experience is the invisible presence in the center.  That presence is Christ,, of course, but that may not be obvious to those who pass by.  It may not be obvious to the believer, either.

A number of Christian mystics including St. John of the Cross have written about the “Absent Presence” which is the risen Christ.  Here’s where the analogyof the nativity scene falls short.  In the nativity scene, the baby Jesus is absent because the statue has not yet been placed in the manger. In the life of the disciple of Christ, Jesus is SO much with us that our normal ways of perceiving presence simply fail us.  Christ is too close.

The best analogy I can come up with is this:  Take a piece of paper with some writing on it, hold it an arm’s length away, and gradually bring it closer to your face.  At first you see the paper with greater clarity and the words become increasingly easier to read.  At a cetain point, however, your eyes are unable to focus together any longer on the object and everything gets blurry again.  Keep moving the paper towards your face and your brain no longer registers it as something within the horizon youu are viewing.  That’s because it has eclipsed everything else in sight and has become the viewing horizon.

This Advent season when I see an empty crib I will use it as a reminder of a truth I so easily forget.  The feeling I sometimes get that I’ve lost touch with Jesus may not mean this at all.  It could  be an indication that I’ve moved a bit closer to the center and that  it’s going to take my spiritual “eyes” a while to adjust to this new horizon.

Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)

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