For over three decades now I have knelt at the manger each Christmas, my heart bowed in gratitude before the infant Jesus.
Before that, for me, Christmas was a time to exchange gifts, carol at nursing homes, and marvel at the abundance and enthusiasm my grandparents channeled into decorating their homes. It was a time when holiday cheer, feasting, and shopping amid department store Santa Clauses were supposed to be enough. But choruses of silver bells and gifts of clothes and toys were never rich enough, full enough to set my spirit singing.
I remember the first Christmas after God laid claim to me in my mid-twenties. That cold sunny morning as I sang carols to myself, it was as though God embraced my wounded heart and held the pain of my childhood splintered by multiple divorces that still bound me in fear, letting me know I wouldn’t have to heal alone.
Growing up I knew loss, but I didn’t know how to let something die or mourn its absence. Instead I carried my losses as though they were treasures feeling as if my life was held together with scotch tape and band aids, and that without my wounds, I would have nothing to call my own.
That is why I needed the manger, a place where I could stop trying to be perfect in order to guarantee love, a place where I could kneel and give over the things I carried. At first, all I could offer Jesus was brokenness, a mosaic of myself made from shards of abandonment and fear. So that is what I gave the newborn God.
And this is what God gave me in those early years of faith: a husband who loved and didn’t leave me and two babies to hold and tend. Holy infants who touched their tiny hands to my cheeks, who cooed and smiled and cried. Infants to cuddle and rock and sing to while I wiped their tears and learned how to mother them.
While I mothered my babies, God mothered me. God held me and sang to me and wiped the tears from my cheeks. And slowly, year by year, God took every wound, every hurt and helped me mend. Then ever so gently, God suggested I leave those things that once bound me at the manger along with all the gifts from wise people.
Others might lay their burdens at the cross, but my gifts belonged at the birth scene. My awe and gratitude began not with Christ’s sacrificial death, but with the incarnation. I was amazed that such hope was born at all. Such hope in the form of the infant Jesus, trusted to the world. And such hope growing inside myself that I scarcely believed it.
Who could imagine a helpless infant born to bring healing? Would he be able to lead us to reconciliation without having to give up his life? And if not, what kind of God would require such a sacrifice from a beloved child? Would I be willing to give up my own child for the sake of others? These are questions I grappled with (and still do) when my own faith was newborn.
It took me decades to come to see that even in death gifts can emerge, that the living can be healed by those who are no longer with us, particularly by Jesus—who in a great mystery was born, crucified, resurrected, and somehow still lives.
My hope was born from a small seed hidden in darkness, much as a baby journeys from the womb, so it’s right and fitting that I came crawling to the manger in my infant faith and that I return to that barn in Bethlehem each year. I imagine the scene like this:
I look into the straw at the beautiful child sleeping peacefully, then ask (because I needed to be told), “Are you sure? Is this for real? Dare I believe?”
“Yes,” answers Mary, the mother who is younger yet so much more certain than I. She strokes Jesus’s head.
“Yes,” answers Joseph who has built a fire, changed the straw, and found blankets for Mary and the baby.
“Oh, yes,” answer the wise men and women who’ve made themselves at home among the barn animals, unwrapping their satchels, revealing herbs, ointments, jewels. “We’re sure,” they say. “We’ve been watching, waiting, paying attention. This is definitely it. The beginning of something incredible.”
The women proffer cooking pots and provisions. The savory smell of their cooking begins to compete with straw and hay and animal and smoke. “Will you stay and eat with us?” they ask.
I look around the barn crowded with the holy family and wise strangers, their smiling faces shining in the lamplight. The straw is scratchy under my knees; the lip of the manger is brittle and splintered beneath my fingers. I am nobody, just a girl in a faded dress looking for a reason to hope.
“Yes,” I say. “Oh, yes. I will stay.”
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.