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December 18, 2021

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. During this holy season, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity. Thank you.

Just before Christmas many years ago, Clare, our daughter, Betsy, and I made the unholy pilgrimage to a shopping mall, a cathedral of capitalism.  Clare and Betsy both know that such a trip ranks among my least favorite activities.  My attendance on this occasion was not optional. It was required.  My responsibility was to be sure the cash registers jingled their accompaniment to the piped-in Christmas carols.  I was excused to my bench and my book, resting in the assurance that I would be summoned at the proper time.

Before Clare and Betsy were ready for a late lunch, I realized I was in trouble.  I had only one book, and this trip was becoming a two-book excursion.  An hour and a half later, when I finished reading, I abandoned my spot and took up browsing.

My window shopping carried me past clothing stores and specialty shops and ended, as you might expect, in a bookstore.

There, the item that caught my eye was not a book at all.  Near the checkout area at the front of the store, a Nativity scene was displayed prominently on a large table.  The familiar depiction of the birth of Jesus was presented in large wooden figures that were handcrafted in Italy.  For a person who loves wood and appreciates the art of carving as I do, the manger scene was fascinating.  I might have held one of the figures in my hands to examine it more closely had it not been for the sign: 


On the way home from the mall, Betsy asked, “Dad, did you enjoy the day?” 

I told her about the manger scene in the bookstore. 

“Too bad about that sign,” she replied.  “Manger scenes were meant to be touched.” 

In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi placed a crèche, a miniature Nativity scene, in a church in Grecchio, Italy.  That was the beginning of a cherished Christmas tradition for many Christians.

Our family displays several Nativity scenes at various places in our home during the season of Advent.  They help us keep our focus on the center of our Christmas observance.  When we were first married, my mother made a hand-painted ceramic scene as a Christmas gift. We display it on a mirrored sideboard in the dining room. 

Over the years, we have accumulated an assortment of manger scenes that are intended for children to enjoy.  One is made from two-by-fours, cut and sanded to resemble the Holy Family.  In another, the figures are small stuffed dolls, sewn together from printed fabric and filled with batting.  When our children were younger, they molded a set from clay. All are placed on low tables to invite touching.

A sturdy, store-bought Nativity occupied our coffee table for many years.  When our children were small, I often came home after a day of pastoral work to find Fisher-Price toy figures — firefighters, police officers, doctors, and construction workers — placed next to shepherds as if they, too, had heard the angels’ message and paused from their work to worship.

I have seen Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and other Star Wars action figures standing next to the magi. It was as if they, too, had followed the new star from “a galaxy far, far away” through a time warp all the way to Bethlehem.    

During the Christmas season, the frequency of war in our world has renewed a vision indelibly etched in my memory.  I recall descending the stairs in our home one December morning years ago to find G. I. Joe action figures arranged in the manger scene on the coffee table. The miniature Joe and several of his well-armed buddies circled the perimeter of the crèche.  The tiny soldiers were facing outward, standing guard. 

With delighted curiosity, I asked our children, “Tell me the story about this.” 

“King Herod wants to kill Baby Jesus,” came the explanation.  “G. I. Joe and his guys are protecting him.”

Throughout the day, the model military force protected the Holy Family. That night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I sat before the Nativity and pondered.  Maybe Christians do need to protect Baby Jesus, not from Herod and his Roman soldiers, but from an internal, invisible enemy, from anything that would eliminate the Christ from our lives. 

It occurred to me that our role in Christmas is not just to protect Baby Jesus in his vulnerability. Christians have another, more important imperative, to worship this Child. 

Sitting alone in the dark, in an act of private unilateral disarmament, I carefully removed the weapons from G. I. Joe and his comrades.  I reshaped their pliable bodies. Then giving them an about-face, I switched them from an outward attack position and turned them to face the manger. The plastic soldiers knelt beside shepherds and wise men in humble adoration of the Prince of Peace.

To celebrate Advent is to come again to the stable and remember the one whose birth we celebrate. At the heart of Christmas is a baby 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. 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.

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 C. E.

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.

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 down the days until the holy birthday arrives.

A season filled with activity and a 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 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 baby and the manger were missing. We don’t know what happened. 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 Catholics speak of being born again.  Curious, he asked her to explain. 

Mrs. Kennedy said that she was grieving deeply during the Christmas season following the death of her son Joseph. She did not want Christmas to come. She did not want to celebrate. 

A maid who worked in the Kennedy home couldn’t help singing Christmas carols.  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 and said, “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 following day, she called the woman and asked her to return to work.  Mrs. Kennedy encouraged the maid to sing all the Christmas carols she wanted.

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

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 in humble adoration. When we do, we will find the manger.

Each of us will find it within our own heart.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

                    His novel, December Light 1916, is a cherished holiday book.

It is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

He can be reached at

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