Arriving at the Manger
December 17, 2023
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola offers a person making this retreat an imaginative prayer exercise to deeply enter into the powerful gift of the Incarnation. Ignatius suggests we imagine a meeting of the Holy Trinity, looking at this world full of conflict and division, such selfishness and disregard for the dignity of human life. They decide to send the Second Person of the Trinity to save us by becoming one of us and entering fully into being with us.
It’s at this point in the exercise that I usually become surprised at my reaction to how they plan to accomplish this Incarnation. My instinct would have been to have Jesus appear in Rome or the Temple in Jerusalem before the Emperor or the chief priests. I would picture a grand entrance for God-with-us. Instead, it was the deliberate plan of the Trinity to enter this broken world at a very low point. There’s no fame and stature here. There’s a young woman, not yet married to her fiancé, in a little-known town. The couple’s extraordinary cooperation is required for the plan to happen. Then an autocrat decrees a census, and the couple must travel, at the most inopportune time in her pregnancy, to Bethlehem, David’s city, to be counted. This, and what follows, is all part of the Trinity’s plan. This is the way he comes to be one of us. They get there late and there’s no place to stay – near term and homeless in an unfamiliar town. They end up in a stable for animals.
The young mother delivered her baby in that very simple place. She wrapped the baby tightly and laid him in a manger – a feeding trough for the animals. The plan was accomplished. And, for us, arriving at that manger is a powerful way to understand and receive the gift of our salvation.
That birthplace, that night, is an entryway for us to understand and rejoice in the rest of the story. That is why it is so important that our journey to Christmas takes us to that manger. It is so important we don’t miss it. The Good News we celebrate is there. The key to how the four Gospels will reveal Jesus’ mission, and ours, is there in that poor place. Our God is with us. No one can say, “He doesn’t know my poverty,” or “He can’t know the rejection and injustice that I’ve gone through.” I can bring my real self to this celebration – whatever is wounded, discouraged, fearful, troubled. We are never alone. We are loved completely. This is the source of our joy and shows us how to love others.
On our way to all the celebrations of Christmas, let us pause on this Holy Night before the manger of lowliness and the revelation of divine love that can fill this Christmas with deep joy.
Father Andy Alexander, SJ, is the Director of the Collaborative Ministry offices and Online Ministries at Creighton University