Christmas is like a diamond you hold up in the sun. Every time you move it even a little it gives off yet a different sparkle. It is inexhaustible in the meanings it generates. As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas, let me speak of one of its sparkles that we too rarely examine:
Several years ago, I attended an international symposium on Church in Belgium. It had been organized by Christiane Brusselmanns and one of the speakers at that conference was Michael Rodrigo, an Oblate Priest from Asia who several years later was to be martyred as he said mass in Sri Lanka.
In his address, Michael challenged the churches, especially the First World churches, to examine themselves as to whether they were unheathily turned in upon themselves as opposed to being truly missionary and other-centred. At one point, he highlighted the following statement of Christ: My flesh is food for the life of the world. He went on to ask this question: “What are we trying to do within the life of our churches? Do our churches exist for the life of the world or for their own sake? When we establish any program in our parishes, what really is our aim? Are we trying to better the life of the world or are we trying to simply better the life of our own parish? Is our aim as a church community really to let ourselves be eaten, killed, consumed, so that the world, not we, ourselves, might live?”
Christ, he re-iterated, gave his body as food for the life of the world and not just as food for the life of believers.
What has all this to do with Christmas and our preparations for it?
Jesus was born in a manger, a place where brute animals, oxen and ass, come to eat. That symbolism is not accidental. Jesus was born in a trough, a feeding place. This already shows us what Jesus will later on explicitly tell us, namely, that his life and his body are food for the life of the world. Christ exists to be eaten … and to be eaten, first of all, by the world, not by the churches. If that is true, and it is, then all of church life and ministry exist for that same reason, they are food to be eaten by the world. Christ lay in a manger, a trough, as a sign that he is food for the ox, sheep, and ass, the world. There is both a challenge and a consolation in that.
The challenge, obviously, is that, as church communities and as individuals, we should never succumb to the temptation of narcissism, that is, we should never become so excessively absorbed with ourselves so as to forget that we exist, precisely, to be eaten by the world. The primary agenda for the church must always be the survival, well-being, and consolation of the world. The church doesn’t exist so that it can thrive and the world can, so to speak, go to the eschatological place of the wicked. The church exists for the sake of the world, not the other way around. Jesus showed us this by lying in a bed of straw.
The consolation is less obvious though, for that reason, not less important. If we meditate the image of Jesus lying in a manger we will, perhaps, feel less sorry for ourselves at those times when we feel like we are being eaten up, literally, by the demands of ministry, family, justice, and the like. When we feel the most sorry for ourselves, when we are over-tired and feel that others are simply eating us alive and that we are not being given the chance to have the kind of life and freedom we would like, we might profitably reflect upon the fact that Jesus was born in a manger, a trough, a place where animals come to feed. The Christ child is meant to be eaten by the world. That too is central to the meaning of Christmas and what it implies vis-a-vis our vocation should also be central in our preparation for Christmas.
Scripture says: Mary gave birth to her first-born and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. There is a entire ecclesiology and pastoral theology in that line. Christmas is a time to eat and celebrate, but it is also a time when we should realize more deeply that our vocation, like that of Jesus, is to let ourselves be eaten, as Christ’s flesh which is food for the life of the world.
When I was child, each advent my mother used to set out a little manger for us and ask us, as kids, to place a little piece of straw in it every time we made some small sacrifice: “To make a bed for the baby Jesus.” That’s not bad piety, it’s good theology!