"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,
So this was Bethlehem. My excitement had turned to dust and blown
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
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
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")