It is the great question of all nativity scene owners everywhere – do you put out the baby Jesus when you first put up the crèche, or do you wait to place him in his manger on Christmas Eve? When you put up your nativity with the rest of your Christmas decorations, do you include the baby Jesus right away, or do you leave the wise men and shepherds and angels and all just staring at an empty spot in the middle of the circle? I am always curious to see what people decide to do.
Of course, I have always assumed if I see a manger scene without the baby Jesus it’s because the owners have decided to wait and let Jesus make his appearance on Christmas Day. But it seems that I have been a bit naïve in this assumption. Apparently, some of the baby Jesus-es are just missing, because swiping baby Jesus-es is now a thing. That’s right, it is now apparently a trend to steal tiny plastic or blow-up or glow-in-the-dark baby Jesus-es right out of their tiny plastic or blow-up or glow-in-the-dark mangers. There has been such a rash of baby-Jesus-stealing this year that a company has designed a special GPS tracker to stick inside the Christ child in case he is pinched while you are at Mass.
Learning of this unfortunate phenomenon helped me to understand the manger scene that I passed a few days ago in the Italian market. Mary and Joseph were there, glowing, somewhat eerily, under a white, wooden crèche, surrounded by a few shimmery shepherds and lustrous farm animals. And right in the center of the scene was a similarly iridescent baby Jesus, lying in his manger. But instead of being an open v-shaped trough, this particular manger was a thick, white shadow box that actually came up and around the Christ child, covering up his arms and trapping him inside in a way that made me utter a silent prayer that the Son of God was not at all claustrophobic. The manger certainly didn’t look beautiful, or comfortable, for that matter, but I don’t think that was the point. The point, clearly, was that no one, and I mean no one, was going to steal a baby Jesus that was jammed into the manger like that.
It’s a haunting vision, isn’t it? Hundreds of nativity scenes set up on Christmas Day, with not one baby Jesus among them, and somewhere, a stack of baby Jesus-es, all serenely extending arms to one another as if to say, “Hello there, little man – at least we’re in this together.” Christmas with no Christ child, no one to wrap in those swaddling clothes, kings presenting gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the baby in absentia. What a sad picture of Christmas morning, with all the faithful gathered around the crèche to gaze upon the child and no Jesus to be found.
Now our bambino is just fine. He’s over in the manger, lying in the straw, with plenty of room to stretch out his little arms, thanks be to God. But this morning, we have gathered around to sing our carols and to hear the story of the birth of the Christ child. And we have heard: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the light is shining into the darkness, and the true light is coming into the world, and where exactly is the part with the baby Jesus in the manger again? Where is he – is he in there? What a Christmas morning, with the faithful gathered around the Gospel to gaze upon the child and no Jesus to be found.
Of course, Jesus is found in this Gospel; in fact, he runs all through it. Jesus is the Word, the father’s only Son, the light that shines into the darkness. And that moment when we all just hit our knees as we heard of the Word being made flesh is the moment of the incarnation, the miracle of God-made-flesh that we celebrate here this morning. And yet I miss hearing that Word’s name; I miss hearing the name Jesus. I miss hearing the name that Joseph spoke softly into the warm darkness of the manger – Jesus – the name that Mary cooed to her newborn son as they rode together on the back of a lumbering donkey. Jesus. I miss hearing the name that made our Lord turn his head when he heard it in on the streets of Nazareth, or in the temple of Jerusalem – Jesus! – the name that he heard whispered in the wilderness, or on the mountaintop, or in Gethsemane’s garden. But in this Gospel reading, his name is missing; “Jesus” is simply nowhere to be found.
But maybe, just maybe, this is part of the point of hearing this particular Gospel lesson on this particular morning. Maybe this is part of its challenge, part of its gift. For maybe, just maybe, it is up to us to help that name be found. Maybe this is actually our job – to do the naming ourselves. Just as Joseph was told all those years ago in the depths of a dream that Mary would have a son and that Joseph would name him Jesus, maybe it is also our calling, our responsibility, to name him. Maybe this is what we get to do. God pours him out into flesh, Mary bears him in her womb, and Joseph and you and I – well, we get to name him.
And the name of Jesus is, of course, not just any ordinary name. It is a name given to him by God, a name of infinite beauty and holiness. It is the name that is above every other name, the name at which every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. This is the name that carries within it the promise of God’s salvation, the assurance that God is with us. This is the name that brings with it the hope of the incarnation, the love of the cross, the joy of the resurrection.
And this is the name that you and I get to offer. This is the name that you and I get to bear into the world. When the world asks its impossible questions, we speak his name as answer. Who will love me, now that she is gone? Jesus. Where is God in the midst of this misery? Jesus. And when the world comes up with unhelpful answers that need better questions, again, we speak his name. Why should I care about the addicts freezing out there on the street? Jesus. Why must I continue to reach out to care for those who are rejected? Jesus. We speak his name in times of joy and times of sorrow, in times of relief and in times of fear. We speak his name as we look at each other, as we gaze into the faces of the wounded and the broken, the beloved and the enemy, as we reach out our arms to each other and say, “Hello there, little one, blessed are we who are in this together.”
There is certainly plenty of space in this world for his name; there are plenty of little empty niches, hollow, hopeless places where we can speak the name that brings peace and salvation and love, the name that fills the darkness with everlasting light. There is room for us to speak his name, to cry out Jesus! with joy and assurance that he has not been stolen away – he is here, among us, born for us this day, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. So name him, Christians, name him, name him for yourselves, name him for each other, name him for the stranger and the lost and the lonely. Fear not! For the child that is born is of the Holy Spirit. Mary has born a Son, and you shall call him Jesus.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Christmas Day 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia