Today’s Lectionary Reading
In the wooden manger beside my family’s Christmas tree, the empty space between Jesus and Mary has not yet been filled. This year, the nativity scene is nestled between crumpled brown craft paper mountains and a painter’s tape river lined with pebbles from our driveway. Two clay sheep, clustered around their shepherd, stand on a mountain ledge covered in cotton-stuffing snow. A woman balancing a jug of water on her head crosses a bridge made of twigs, not far from a baker wearing a white apron and an elderly couple who watch from afar, leaning against one another.
Every Advent, the little scene looks slightly different…this year the table is small and the clay figures huddled together, but one year the townspeople came from far and wide, spread out on our piano bench. Once, the three kings and their dromedary had to cross over the stone chimney to reach the manger, and another year, Mary and Joseph waited for their son in a straw-strewn cardboard cave.
And every Advent, when my siblings and I finish setting up the nativity scene, I am struck by the particularity of the world we have created. A few weeks ago, my Parisian cousins sent me a picture of a Mary and Joseph kneeling under the arched entrance of a colored-penciled Notre Dame Cathedral. In the Catholic Student Center at Harvard, Mary and Joseph are placed right next to each other in a tiny foam barn. “My mom always said that they couldn’t have been on opposite sides,” a friend explained to me earlier this December. “And it makes sense. Of course they were together.”
Beautifully detailed nativity scenes, paradoxically, are able to convey Christ’s real humanity even though the worlds they create are far from early A.D. Bethlehem. The paper mangers and clay townspeople, whether in a bustling Parisian cityscape or snowy mountain region, always remind me of the particularity of Jesus’s own home. While I know that through Christ’s birth, God permeates every time and place, I sometimes forget that Jesus was a human child, born helpless just like any other, in a place defined by the circumstances of its own time. Model infants, either laughing or sleeping serenely, lie nestled between an ox and a donkey in every church and Christian home on December 25th—and yet the real Jesus must have wailed in his exhausted mother’s arms as he took his first sharp breaths of spring air.
It is a wonderful thing that the mutuality of experience is conveyed only through the particular. When we read a well-written story, what captures our attention so acutely is the way in which we are able to relate to places and people that we may have never seen, and yet which find a way of incarnating themselves in our own lives. I remember realizing this a long time ago, when my mother told me about an afternoon by a river in the south of France with her siblings. I can’t recall what happened, really, but I do remember that the shore was made of smooth stones worn down by the current and that my grandmother brought watermelon slices in a tupperware. I remember, too, the way my mother described the watermelon—“the most refreshing thing,” she’d said, “and we could never find it in the north.”
What’s strange, though, is the way I remember what wasn’t really a part of the story: the hard glint of midday sunlight on the rocks and the frill of my mother’s bathing suit, her baby brother’s toothless grin, the way droplets of water ran down her aunts and uncles’ browned skin. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent afternoons by that same river, too, or because I’ve seen baby pictures of my dimpled uncle lining the curved staircase in my grandparents’ house. Regardless, I realized then that what watermelon is to my mother means squares of melting Lindt chocolate to me, and that my smooth cold river is the rolling Atlantic Ocean.
Jesus—God incarnated, God made flesh—must also have known that same sticky happiness my mother told me about long ago. Like any other child, he had a home—Nazareth, in Galilee—whose winding streets were imprinted upon his memory. He had favorite places to visit when he was upset or pensive or happy. Whether he was brilliant at skipping rocks in a nearby stream, or scratched his knee tripping on the doorstep when he was four years old, he was anchored, like every human being, to his own home.
If on Easter Sunday we celebrate Christ’s ascension and abstraction as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) of all of humankind, then during Christmas we remember his descent into the uncertainties of one particular human life. This Christmas Eve, as we prepare to welcome Christ into our own homes, perhaps we should try to imagine him in his own. We are about to mark the moment in which God enters space and time. Though Luke’s account of the nativity does not perfectly align with Roman history, we do know that God comes into the world as an infant in Bethlehem, in Judea, under the reign of the Roman Empire, to a foster father descended from King David (Luke 2:1-4). And while the Gospel writers do not detail the early years of Jesus’s life, Christ’s humanity is made intelligible to us through our own. We may not all be able to wander the streets of Bethlehem and Nazareth, but we can fill in the gaps in the story of Christ’s life with our own understanding of the mutual particularities of human life.
Yes, Christ is God—omnipotent and omniscient, abstract and magnanimous—named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). And yet it is Christ’s immanence—his particularity—that allows him to enter into every home, and every model manger, and every fellow human life. How miraculous is it that we have a God with whom we share humanity, a God whom we can understand! He is our Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14): “God with us.”
Merry Christmas Eve!
Aliénor Manteau ’22 is a sophomore in Dunster House studying English and Philosophy.