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"The Earth is His Manger"
December 23, 1998


"The Earth is His Manger"
By Paul Thigpen

Our battered old taxi struggled up the last brown hillside, leaving a trail of dust and oily fumes. We'd arrived at last. On this particular day, only a few foolhardy tourists had defied the searing sun to make the journey to this ancient little town just south of Jerusalem. We piled out of the old car in the blinding afternoon light and squinted at the road sign: "Bethlehem."

It was late June, but strains of Silent Night were echoing through my mind. To visit the site of the first Christmas had been my dream since childhood, and at long last my dream had come true.

I spied out the village. Its narrow streets hummed with a homespun song: woman chatting, children laughing, dogs yapping, vendors calling in clipped English, "For you, special price!"

Before me the merchants had spread out a mob of Nativity figures carved from local olive wood. The shapes were crude, hardly recognizable to eyes long accustomed to exquisite Christmas figurines of porcelain or papier-mache. All the shepherds looked stiff. Their bowl-eyed sheep seemed terrified, or maybe ill. Mary's body was square. The camels looked mangy. And the Baby's arms were stretched rigidly, which kept the little figurine from fitting in the manager.

I turned away. This wasn't meant to be a shopping trip.

My guidebook showed the way to the Church of the Nativity, built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 330 on the site claimed to be where Jesus was born. And so when I reached the church, I stood a moment to study its exterior lines. Rebuilt in the sixth century, the rambling edifice defied symmetry. I searched for the doorway and found it -- an entrance designed unusually low to keep mounted intruders of long ago from riding into worship services.

Another gaggle of vendors surrounding the church squawked about their goods. I ignored them and entered the structure that, according to the guidebook, "stands over the cave where Christ was born." Inside, the atmosphere was no less distracting than the street. The sanctuary was a cauldron of sensory chaos, a concoction of sights, smells, and sounds that had simmered for centuries. I was immersed in incense, candlelight, the chanting of monks -- some Roman, others Greek of Armenian, each group presiding in a different tongue over a different segment of the building.

Treading narrow steps down to the Grotto of the Nativity, a room scarcely three feet wide, I listened as a monk pointed out the place, marked with a star, where Christ is said to have been born.

"Where's the manger?" a tourist asked.

The monk shrugged. "They stole it and carried it off to Rome long ago." Then he added, "Would you like to give money for the church?"

I handed him a small Israeli bill and left abruptly.

"Where's the manger?" I repeated the words to myself as I hurried down a side alley. No, I thought, the question to ask was, "Where's Jesus?"

So this was Bethlehem. My excitement had turned to dust and blown away.

I thought back to all those childhood Christmas seasons when I had played with the figures of our family Nativity scene. No gift under the tree, no matter how big or shiny, could compare with the wonder of that little stable and its guests. I would close my eyes and listen to 0 Little Town of Bethlehem, imagining a sweet and holy village lying quiet and still as the stars shone above its "deep and dreamless sleep."

Later, the riotous '60s and early '70s had stolen much of my innocence. Selma and Watts, My Lai, and Kent State made a mockery of the promise of peace on Earth -- and good will. At about that time, I lost my faith, concluding that Jesus was just a good man, and the good, well, they die young.

Nevertheless, in time my faith returned, and with it, my sense of awe. Once again that little City of David had become central to my inner landscape of faith. I stood grateful at the Cross, exultant at the empty tomb. But beside the manger I felt speechless.

The mystery of the Incarnation -- God becoming one of us -- scandalized me. How could it be that the Voice that spoke the world into being would cry for the breast? How could Eternity pour into a moment; Infinity squeeze into a teardrop; Potter climb inside clay?

Someday, I told myself, I would go to the site of that central event in human history. I would see it with my own eyes, touch it with my own fingers, kneel to adore God at God's own birthplace. That was my dream. But a dream fulfilled can be a dangerous thing.

I should have recalled the warning of my junior high geography teacher, a semi-retired world traveler and first rate spinner of tales. He had charmed us with storied of his adventures on every continent, telling us all the details of sight and sound that the textbook couldn't hold. As far as we could tell, he had been to every place on Earth, so when we read about Bethlehem we asked him to fill us in.

His reply surprised us. "I never went there," he said simply. "I toured all of the Holy Land except Bethlehem. Instead, I stood on a hill to view the town from a distance in the early evening, peaceful like a Christmas card scene. And I knew that if I ever saw it up close, it would spoil the picture forever."

He was wise, I decided now, but I'd remembered his words too late: my own image of the first Christmas had already been spoiled.

But you're not being fair to these people, I told myself. What exactly had you expected, anyway -- a 3-D Christmas card with failing snow? An Italian creche come to life, with baroque stable, trumpeting cherubs, haloed heads, and barnyard animals with a look of royal serenity?

Yet even the adult expectations of my rekindled faith had been dashed. I'd wanted to step out of the taxi at Bethlehem into an atmosphere charged with Divine energy. I'd hoped for a sense of mystery that would drop my jaw, slow my step, bow my head. This was to have been the most thrilling journey of all -- a pilgrimage to God's hometown.

Instead, I got yapping dogs, harassing vendors, and chanting monks.

It was all so, well, so ordinary. The dust made my feet just as dirty as the dust in any other town. The sun made my throat just as thirsty. In my eyes, Bethlehem had tumbled.

Yet, idols fall so that true altars might be raised. And my disappointment gave God, at that moment, a chance to speak. In my heart, I heard a question, the question Jesus had once asked the crowd.

"What did you come out here to see?"

"I came," I answered, "to see what You saw, hear what You heard, feel what You felt, when You became flesh."

"And what did you find?"

"Dust, sweat, and frustration."

The questioning persisted. "I was the One who washed my disciples' feet, asked the woman at the well for a drink, drove the money changers from the Temple. What else did you expect to find?"

"But Lord," I protested, "this is your hometown. I expected to find some special evidence of Your presence here."

"Bethlehem is not my hometown. Earth is my hometown."

I contemplated those words for a long moment. Then, at last, I saw it.

In this place 2,000 years ago, God had taken the homespun fabric of our daily lives -- fabric I had despised as too coarse -- and become clothed with it, humbled enough to enter the everyday flow of life, not just Bethlehem, or Nazareth, but of every town.

Slowly there dawned within me that sense of awe I had longed to feel, and I knew I wouldn't leave it behind in this land. I had come to the Holy Land wanting to "walk where Jesus walked." But from this day on I would know that all the Earth was "Holy Land," and wherever I might go I'd be walking the soil Jesus walked. For our sake, God had embraced all of creation, and had made the ordinary forever extraordinary by that touch. The City of David, I realized, had not truly been cast down in my heart that day. On the contrary, my own city, half way around the world, had been raised up -- and every other locale as well. Bethlehem had indeed been the meeting place of heaven and Earth. But when God had stopped to visit there, Bethlehem had been drawn up to God, bringing all the Earth with it.

Daylight was fading so I headed back to catch a taxi. On the way, I repented of my pride and prayed in gratitude for the monks chanting, children playing, dogs sleeping, merchants trying to scratch out a living. Indeed, before I left Bethlehem on that day long ago, I stopped to purchase one of those roughly hewn Nativity scenes for myself, and its meaning has deepened over the years. Each December since then I've set it out as a humbling reminder of my visit to David's city.

Who knows whether those rough figurines might be closer to the truth about how things really looked that first Christmas night? Maybe the camels were mangy, the shepherds stiff from sleeping on the ground.

In any case, I know the tiny olive-wood Baby with its arms stretched out, the God who was born on this planet and still calls it home, never will fit into any little bed we may try to carve.

Now when someone asks, "Where's the manger?" I know what to say: "The Earth is Christ's manger, and the fullness thereof."

(From the January 1992 issue of CATHOLIC DIGEST, condensed from "Charisma & Christian Life")


 

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