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Searching for the Manger

December 20, 2008


The search for the birthplace of Jesus began with the shepherds of Bethlehem. They were minding their own business when all heaven broke loose. Scripture says they were scared to death. Hearing that a savior had been born, they went with haste to find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

The magi from ancient Persia joined the search when they saw an unusually bright star, a sign in the night sky that a new person of royalty had been born. Following the star, they came to Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over the cave believed to be the place where Christ was born. The basilica is entered through a low door called the Door of Humility. The only way to enter the church is to stoop, crouch, or bend low.

In Christian tradition, Advent is a time of preparation. As expectant parents prepare for the birth of a child, so the Church has interpreted Advent as the days of getting ready for the birth of Christ. Advent calendars and wreaths help us count the days until the Holy Birthday.

The season is filled with activity. There is danger that our hectic pace might interfere with our spiritual preparation. A favorite carol reminds us, “Let every heart prepare Him room.” We may be so busy decorating our homes, attending events, and shopping until we drop, that we have little time to focus on the spiritual significance of the season.

Recently, a family told me about their preparation for Christmas. “When we got the Nativity Scene down from the attic, the manger was missing. We don’t know what happened to it. We could find it anywhere.” Finding the manger is important for all of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus.

A story originally told by Dr. Jess Moody illustrates the importance of our quest.              

 In 1976, Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, was running for president. Mr. Carter had said that he was a born again Christian. There had been much discussion in the press and much concern from some people about his openness regarding his faith.    

At a Democratic fundraising event in Florida, Jimmy Carter was seated on the platform with Mrs. Rose Kennedy, the mother of former President John F. Kennedy. 

Mrs. Kennedy leaned over and said, “Mr. Carter, I understand that you have been born again.” 

Mr. Carter answered, “That’s right.” 

“So have I,” Mrs. Kennedy declared.

 Mr. Carter knew that she was a devout Roman Catholic. Evangelical Christians do not expect to hear Catholic Christians speak of being born again.  Curious, he asked her to explain. 

Mrs. Kennedy said that the Christmas after her son Joseph died she was grieving deeply. She did not want Christmas to come. She did not want to celebrate. 

She had a maid who couldn’t help singing Christmas carols.  The closer Christmas came, the more carols she sang. 

Finally, Mrs. Kennedy said to her, “Hush!  I don’t want to hear any more Christmas carols. I’m in no mood for Christmas.”

The woman turned to her and said, “Mrs. Kennedy, what you need is a manger in your heart.” Rose Kennedy fired her.  

Mrs. Kennedy said that night she got down on her knees beside her bed and prayed that God would put a manger in her heart. God answered her prayer.  The next morning, she called the woman and asked her to come back to work.  She told her she could sing all the Christmas carols she wanted.

If we believe that we are in a time of preparation, a time of waiting to celebrate again the birth of Christ, then our prayer becomes

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray. 
Cast out our sin and enter in. 
Be born in us today.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is entered through the Door of Humility. So, too, is Advent.  For Christians, Advent is the time to search for the manger, a quest that requires a posture of humility.

Wise men and wise women still kneel. When we do, we find the manger. We find it in our own heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2007

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