We set up our nativity scene last Sunday, and like every year, the most important guest was missing. For a week, the manger was empty. In much the same way that parents who are expecting their first child will put together a nursery, gathering a crib and toys and painting it and making everything just right, so too does the nativity scene show a certain amount of preparation. The Wise Men are late, as usual, they don’t arrive until the Solemnity of the Epiphany, but Joseph and Mary are there, already looking at the empty place in the manger where their child will be placed. The shepherds have made it, the animals are hovering nearby watching and waiting. Everything is ready. They all have faith that Christ will arrive just as he always said he would. Every year, without fail, they’re proven correct. Every year, it still feels like a miracle.
The nativity scene before Christmas is strange because the figurines gather around that empty space. They’re looking at nothing. The nativity on Christmas is even stranger, because the manger is no longer empty but is occupied by an infant. Infants, of course, are not meant to relax in feeding troughs for animals. They are more properly found sleeping in their mothers arms or napping in a crib. There’s something appropriate, though, about this particular infant being placed in a manger.
From the moment of his birth, out of the greatness of his love, Our Lord has already become spiritual food. Like the wheat that would typically fill that manger, he is ready to be consumed, to be taken up like bread, broken and turned into nourishment.
St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “The setting of Christ’s birth points us to the Eucharist. Since through sin man becomes like the beasts, Christ lies in the trough where animals feed, offering them, not hay, but his own body as life-giving bread.” For this reason, St. John Chrysostom encouraged the faithful to approach the altar as if they were kneeling before the manger on Christmas day.
This is a sacred and most holy Solemnity – the Nativity of Our Lord. It is intimately connected with the deepest mysteries of our faith, which are the Cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice. The shocking truth is that the infant Christ, from the moment of his birth, already rests in a place of sacrifice. The entire purpose of his birth is so that he may one day die in our place for the forgiveness of sins. His birth foretells his death.
In the same way, his death foretells a birth, because it is at the Cross that the Church is born and where you and I are led into new life. There is no Christmas without the Cross, and no Cross without Christmas. The two events are transcribed onto each other.
Love is the most powerful virtue in the world, and the perfect love of Christ overcomes even death itself. Written into the very nature of love is sacrifice, meaning that, if we are to accept the love of Christ, we must let him be a sacrifice for us, humble ourselves to admit that we stand in need of his forgiveness and grace. If we are to love others, we must be prepared to make our lives a gift by placing ourselves into that manger with Our Lord. This is a tremendous act of heroism, and each time we consent to loving another person, it is no less a miracle than the arrival of Christ on Christmas.
As you receive the Eucharist at Mass, either by the physical sacrament or spiritually in your heart, taste and see how he has placed his life as a ransom for yours. Meditate on the cost of redemption and how willing he is to pay it. There is no love without sacrifice, but it is beautiful to die consumed. As you look at the nativity scene here on your way out, or later today at home, see how he loves you.