Many years ago, after leading a Christmas Eve service like this one, the minister and writer, Frederick Buechner, had just settled into bed after working late into the night with his bride getting everything in place for Christmas: lights, ornaments, stockings, once-hidden presents set under the tree. The children tucked in. It was then, under his cozy blanket, that he remembered his neighbor’s sheep. He’d asked Frederick to feed them while he was away and, in the press of all the matters that make up a clergyman’s life, he’d forgotten, as I often forget, an important detail. Unfed sheep. Frederick tells us what happened next:
So down the hill I go through knee-deep snow. I get two bales of hay from the barn and carry them out to the shed. There’s a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and I light it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as I snap the baling twine, shake the squares of hay apart and start scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it … puffs of their breath showing in the air. I reach to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly I realize where I am. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where I am is the manger.
I almost missed it…missed where I was standing. I whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. I who on my best days believe that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that I had just been in the manger. The world is the manger.
My world is the manger. Your world is the manger. We’re all in the manger where Christ is laid.
The Word become flesh and made his home among us, and Mary laid him in a manger, laid him in the heart of the world, for us and for our salvation.
"Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed," as some unholy ‘doctors’ do. The everlasting made fragile. Incarnation. The scene is not tame like a Hallmark card. It is not beautiful. As with all non-anesthetized childbearing, agonized labor led to his birth. Even as celestial choirs serenade the shepherds with Gloria, there’s an angelic battle in the heavens (Revelation 12), eternity enters time, a tearing occurs in the fabric of reality.
"We can only cover our eyes and shudder before it, kneel before this: ‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.’"
He came down. He moved into our neighborhood. Not until then—not until it occurs to us that only Love could do something so self-emptying and impoverishing—do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life that Mary now holds in her arms.
He who cannot be contained was contained in her teenage womb. The immense omnipotence of the Creator made as vulnerable as a baby, flailing his arms against the cold and the dark. The one who made all things now utterly dependent on Mary and Joseph for food, shelter, warmth, and life. Laid in a feed trough. Laid amid animal breath and straw and shit. Laid in our midst, for us and for our salvation.