Moving beyond the MangerIsn’t he cute? That chubby little baby, his golden curls enhanced by the glowing disc behind his head. His mother and father gaze on him lovingly, their halos match his. He’s the baby Jesus of the Christmas card. Let’s keep him there. He’s safe. He asks nothing of us but admiration. He demands nothing. We won’t need to change at all. It’s a great idea isn’t it? God on a greeting card – predictable, definable, containable.
What’s wrong with hanging onto the Jesus of our childhood? Well nothing really if you want to remain a child. But Jesus of the Christmas card, the Jesus we grew up with, is only a starting point. We limit ourselves when we try to limit God. Our capacity for mystery is infinite and our imagining of the divine, immeasurable.
As spiritual seekers it’s worth our while to stop and rest a bit
at the manger. The other visitors did. But they did not stay. The shepherds left with news of a celestial anomaly and a Savior. The magi left with news of a king, a shadow across their hearts. Already, the child was in danger.
Then Jesus grows up, and so must we.
Many people make the too-simple trade: the baby Jesus for the Hollywood Jesus. You know him, the guy that walks two feet off the ground, always wears a shimmering white robe and speaks with a British accent. But most of us feel the movement toward something deeper. We are hungry for a God that will join us in the struggle, someone who’ll do the dirty work with us and not remain a cool, impassive observer. At the same time we need the Cosmic Christ. The one who was there at the beginning and ruled over the chaos, the creative force that authored the universe. The one who is bigger than our personal struggles and bigger even than the struggles of all of humanity.
“There is a difference between being–as Jesus says in the Gospels–child-like in our faith and being child-ish. An adult faith includes a bigger God than we once imagined and, while we need to maintain our wide-eyed wonder and innocence, we also need to be attentive to both the challenges and the comforts of having a savior who is fully God and fully human.”
I remember as a kid unpacking the nativity set each year. Carefully unwrapping each piece. The three legged lamb and the wise-man with the chip out of his nose. I loved the camel but my favorite was the rosy-cheeked shepherd with the little lamb across his shoulders. I’d lay on the floor in front of the fireplace rearranging the figures for hours, cheek pressed against the cool slate of the hearth step imagining Mary taking care of the baby, what did she say to the shepherds? She and the blonde angel wired to the crossbar above her were good friends, they’d say kind supportive things to each other. Sometimes the angel would sing the baby to sleep. Then I’d get called for dinner or homework or a friend who wanted to play and leave the figures to carry on the tale without me.
As a child, it was a wonderful way to imagine and enter into the
story of Jesus birth, but there is a difference between being–as Jesus says in the Gospels–child-like in our faith and being child-ish. An adult faith includes a bigger God than we once imagined and, while we need to maintain our wide-eyed wonder and innocence, we also need to be attentive to both the challenges and the comforts of having a savior who is fully God and fully human.
Through high school I was part of a great retreat program that emphasized Jesus as a friend, a companion on our journey. He was always there to listen, to care, to forgive. It was great but I found that my nearly frozen image of this kind loving friend started to shift crazily, kaleidoscope fashion as I began to experience the pains and limitations of life, not getting the job I’d hoped and prayed for, a painful break-up, financial hard times. The danger of the “buddy” Jesus is the same as with any static image- there is no one idea, metaphor, or picture that can explain the vast and myriad nature of God.
I asked a couple of friends recently how their image of Jesus has changed since high school. Tristan said, “Jesus went from being a watcher to someone who turns on the light in the room to show you what’s around you.” Julie said “Its changed a lot, not so much because of time but different situations have changed it, life experiences, having depression & being gay, made me question was Jesus really there, did he really care about me as a person? Was I supposed to endure this for Him? There must have been some purpose for my suffering. When I realized I was homosexual it seemed like just one more struggle God was adding on. Did he still love me? Before college I guess there was more fear, I don’t know. When I went to college I was just confused a lot of the time. I spent a lot of time in the chapel. My whole view just opened up. Who Jesus is for me now? More accepting, more merciful than I would have originally thought.”
Mike said, “Well I kind of just took him for granted in high school. I learned all the facts in my classes and everything, but didn’t internalize it or really let it get to my heart.”
Well letting Jesus get to your heart is dangerous business. Everything can change- relationships, choices, the way we view the world. He challenges us to let go our cynicism and embrace hope. He prods us to move past our eye-for-an-eye point of reference and into forgiveness.
Jesus is the brother who will be there to listen, even when we can’t talk. He’s the friend who will always forgive us, even when we keep making the same mistake, the mother who loves us unconditionally but reminds us when we can do better, the lover that whispers in the dark to us of passion and dreams, and the mystery that remains beyond our grasp.