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Searching for the Manger

December 19, 2011

A little girl looked forward to her ninth birthday on December 24. For several years her parents had combined her birthday party with a Christmas Eve gathering in their home. As the only child in the family, the little girl assumed that the festivities were all for her.

Few people bothered to wish her a happy birthday, fewer still brought gifts.  Her beautifully decorated home was filled with partying adults. She thought that surely the guests had gathered in her honor.

The nine-year-old, feeling ignored and left out, shouted in frustration, “Hey, whose birthday is it anyway?”

The little girl’s question we might well ask ourselves. Whose birthday is it anyway? 

For Christians, this is the time to come again to the stable and remember the one whose birth we celebrate. At the heart of Christmas is a child in a feeding trough, a manger that we must seek anew each year.

The search for the birthplace of Jesus began with the shepherds of Bethlehem. They were tending their flocks when the sky erupted in light and in song. 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 and lying in a manger.

The magi 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.

Beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a silver star marks the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, identified the site and ordered the construction of a church there. The Church of the Nativity was completed in 333 A.D.

During the season of Advent, thousands of Christians journey to Bethlehem to visit the holy place where the manger cradled the Christ Child. The basilica is entered through a low door called the Door of Humility. The only way to visit the birthplace of Jesus is to stoop, crouch, or bend low.

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

Recently, a family told me about their preparation for Christmas. “When we got the Nativity set down from the attic, the manger was missing. We don’t know what happened to it. We couldn’t 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 from his experience while serving as Pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida, 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. His statement created much discussion in the press and much concern from some people about his openness regarding his faith.

At a Democratic fund-raising 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 during the Christmas season following the death of her son Joseph, she was grieving deeply. She did not want Christmas to come, and she certainly did not want to celebrate.

A woman employed as a maid in the Kennedy home couldn’t help singing Christmas carols while she worked.  The closer Christmas came, the more carols she sang.

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

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

Outraged, Rose Kennedy abruptly fired her maid.

Later that night, Mrs. Kennedy, feeling remorse, 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 and asked the woman to return to work.  Mrs. Kennedy even encouraged the maid to sing all the Christmas carols she wanted.

If we believe that we are in a time of preparation, 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 people still kneel in humble adoration. When we do, we will find the manger.

Each of us will find it within our own heart.

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2011

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