. . . and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. - Luke 2:7
One little testimony to the impact of the Christmas story is that for most people, the word “manger” no longer evokes pictures of animals feeding. Now the immediate image that comes to mind is that of the creche, centering on the infant Jesus, with Mary and Joseph watching over him, some shepherds and three kings a little farther away, and some animals off at the sides.
Even when we remind ourselves that a manger is a feeding trough and that we are talking about a stable, it is hard not to romanticize the picture. This past week, with the help of the police and an ambulance crew, a woman had a healthy boy in the family car on Route 128. It made the evening news. If someone had a child in a stable these days, there would probably be a full-scale investigation, and the mother would be fortunate if she were not found guilty of neglect.
The Gospels tell of very different times, of course, before sterile delivery rooms, before childbirth was treated as a medical event. Still, it would be expected that a mother would have a room in a house, a midwife, and probably other wives of the neighborhood on call. The picture painted by Luke draws the strongest possible contrast between the glory of the Lord’s conception and the circumstances of his birth. This infant was an act of the Divine itself, heralded by angels. The world this infant was coming to save offered no help at all.
As Christians, we naturally tend to identify with the shepherds or the wise men—with the people who recognized something of the significance of this birth. We can hardly avoid this identification, since we know and accept the story. That is a very important part of our life and thought, and certainly should not be minimized. When we hear the Christmas story, we know what lies ahead for this child. We are particularly aware of the searching love of the mature Jesus, of the Divine nature that would become more and more prominent until, at the resurrection, it effaced everything else. There is a real and important sense in which we are disciples, people who have chosen to follow the Lord and to learn from him.
We are all too aware, though, that we are inconsistent in this regard. Not all of our days are “good days.” When things get to be too much for us, when our particular buttons are pushed, we have trouble hearing the message of love. We find that we have reason to wonder just how “Christian” we are.
It may help to see the Christmas story as addressed particularly to such times. Our theology tells us that the Lord’s birth came at the darkest hour of human spiritual history, so it is wholly appropriate to think of it as relating to us at our worst. Rather than basking in the contagious spirit of Christmas, then, let us look at those dark times of ours—not a welcome thought on Christmas Sunday, I am sure, but perhaps a necessary one. I was struck a couple of years ago by a little statement in Arcana Coelestia (n. 1690). It describes the last of the Lord’s temptations as “when on the cross he prayed for his enemies—that is, for everyone in the whole world.” You and I are part of that “everyone.” You and I are represented by the “enemies” that he prayed for.
Different people have different “darknesses.” For some, the experience is one of anger, for some it is depression and withdrawal. There may be bitterness or envy, resentment, escapism, self-righteousness~—the list could go on and on. What all these moods have in common is a focus on self to the exclusion of others. Other people are important only as they affect us. They are good if they gratify us, bad if they get in our way, and irrelevant if their interests do not overlap ours. Sales clerks are not human beings, but functionaries. Traffic is all the people who are using our road. Children are nothing but constant demands, parents are nothing but incomprehension.
The message of Christmas is that even when such moods seem to engulf us totally, there is one little corner of us where the Lord can be born. It is not in the palace, in our “control center.” It is not in our home, our basic sense of identity, or in the inn, which Swedenborg identifies as a place of relatively external instruction because it is a place where people go to be fed. The place where the Lord can be born is the place of our simplest affections, which throughout Scripture are represented by animals.
We need to reflect a little on this if it is not to be just an arbitrary decoding of an arcane language. We are particularly hampered by the distance between ourselves and the sources of our food. The aisles of the supermarket seem to have little connection with the births and growths and deaths of plants and animals on which our life depends. In ancient times, it was demonstrated time and time again that national security rested ultimately on an agricultural base. One could not found and maintain an empire unless one could feed both the army and the civilians. More than that, one could not survive at all without the plants and the animals, which is as true as ever today.
The stable, then, is part of that absolutely necessary basis of life. What is its equivalent in our spiritual economy? What is absolutely necessary for our survival as human beings? For all our egocentricity, we discover that we starve spiritually without human contact. At one time in the Soviet Union there were efforts to raise babies with clinical perfection, but it was found that without cuddling, they tended to die. Solitary confinement is a punishment of last resort. Even our negative moods~—our anger, our resentment, our envy—distorted as they are, are forms of contact with other humans.
Swedenborg refers to these elemental needs as “natural affections.” We need to talk and to listen. We need to do things and see results. We need to care about things, and we need people to care about us. Technology may fascinate us (and may obscure our sight), but all the technology in the world cannot feed these basic hungers.
In fact, these basic needs are not well met when we are at our worst. Under the surface of our anger or our depression or our resentment there is a spiritual starvation. We are empty. We are empty, and the only thing that stands in the way of our being fed is our refusal to admit our emptiness. The letter to the Laodiceans in the Book of Revelation puts it all together in a slightly different way:
Because you say, “I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing,” and do not realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I counsel you to buy of me gold tried in the fire so that you may be rich, and white raiment so that you may be clothed . . . . To the one who overcomes I will grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I overcame and am seated with my Father in his throne.
The most extraordinary promise is saved for those who seem worst off. The greatest closeness is offered to those who seem the farthest away. The manger is a feeding trough, and we are closest to it when we are hungriest. It is a place of “spiritual nourishment for the understanding” (True Christian Religion 277). That is, it is a state of mind in which our resistance to learning the deep lessons is finally broken down.
In our negative moods, we paint the whole world in negative colors. Particularly, we see God as threatening, punitive, tyrannical. Our own sense of justice demands retribution for our sins, and we do everything we can to fend off this God. It is a dilemma to which there is no apparent resolution. The worse we feel about ourselves, the harder we work to deny those very feelings.
The way out is, obviously, to admit our emptiness, to recognize that in our efforts to make something of ourselves, we neglect our elemental needs. In a busy world, a world of Herods and power politics, a world of motels and inns and business, everything still depends, in the last analysis, on the mangers. Without them, the whole structure collapses.
Perhaps it is not strange at all that this is where Mary laid her infant. The Gospel of John tells us that “in him was life,” and perhaps the only place where he could be laid was that close to the foundation, the source, of life. All the intellectual elegance of theology, all the liturgical beauty of worship, all the moral force of justice, wither and die if they are cut off from this source, our fundamental need of each other. We could not imagine or invent a god less threatening, punitive, or tyrannical than the one we discover in the manger.
In general terms, the union of extremes is so insistent a feature of the Christmas story that we cannot escape it. We see omnipotence in a helpless infant. “Mild he lays his glory by.” We see the wise men coming to the palace and being directed to a stable. We see hosts of angels appearing not to prophets or to saints but to shepherds.
There is a risk in this message, the risk of hearing a call to false humility. All of us are quite capable of that, and probably quite well aware of how barren it is. No, the message of Christmas is not for the times when we pull down the shades and turn out the lights, but for the times when the darkness overcomes us against our will. It is for the times when humility is not a choice, not something we choose and therefore control, but something that is shoved down our throat.
“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not mastered it.” Emptiness—darkness—both are “nothings,” absences. We are not life, but recipients of life. There is only one source of nourishment. It is ultimately gentle, and perfectly at home in a manger.