The Imperfect Manger

As a child, the season after Thanksgiving and before Christmas was always an exciting time. They were times of anticipation and activities that only happened once a year: posing for the family Christmas card picture, visiting the Woolworth’s to find a present for my siblings, placing our nativity set on the table by our front door, having our family and closest friends for dinner on Christmas Eve, gathering around our piano to sing Christmas carols and then going to church for the midnight service. Of all these memories, my fondest one focused on the Christmas tree.

I remember walking hand in hand with my father while we spent hours in the North Florida woods, scouting for the perfect Red Cedar Christmas tree. Every year would require more and more of a search but eventually we would make the decision and harvest a tree. In those days, we would place the tree in a bucket of water in the corner of the garage and then, on Christmas Eve, we would cut and hammer a wooden stand for the tree and place it inside the house. It wasn’t until then that we knew what we had to work with as far as decorations go. I discovered early on that those Cedar trees usually looked better in the wild than they did when they were placed on a stand in the living room. Quite often, we would discover its bare spots and its inevitable lean one way or the other as it had sought the prevailing presence of the sun throughout its life. Decorating the tree was a collaboration of the resident experts – some did the lights, we all had our favorite ornaments, one person was designated to place the star on the top and only certain people were allowed to place the tinsel on the branches. The culminating moment occurred when we would turn off all the room lights and my father and mother would cuddle on the couch and gaze at the wonder of the finished tree as the tree lights glistened through the tinsel.

Something magical happened every year on Christmas Eve; it wasn’t just the decoration of the tree, it was everything about who we had become as a family. And for being a part of that family, I am thankful. It is astounding when I think that the magic of those childhood experiences pales in comparison to the moments leading up to the first Christmas. There weren’t any cameras available to capture the moment like making a family Christmas card; but we can thank Luke (2:1-20) and Matthew (1:28-2:23) for a vivid depiction. There weren’t any Woolworth’s around the corner for the wise men to pick up a quick gift; they offered the treasure of their hearts and the hand-fashioned gifts off gold, frankincense and myrrh. Mary and Joseph had no predisposed idea of how their home should be decorated; they didn’t even know where they would lay their heads that night. Mary and Joseph had no one playing an instrument and singing Christmas carols with them; but they were accompanied by the angels who sang glory to God in the highest! Mary and Joseph lived without electricity; but the star shining in the East was so magnificent that it outshone any possible string of lights that we could place on a tree!

Just as we overlooked the imperfections of our Cedar trees, the imperfect makeshift manger and the familiar smelling barn mixture of straw and manure likely went unnoticed, overshadowed by the witness of the birth of the Christ child: the imperfect manger surrounding God’s perfect image. God is no longer the unseen. In that moment of hushed silence in that dimly lit stable, those who surrounded the baby Jesus in the manger for his first night on earth felt a sense of peace far greater than we believe we can likely experience in today’s world. As followers of Christ, we are promised that same peace. We are called to come to know and experience the Incarnation; and it all begins with finding a moment to lay on our proverbial couches with our loved ones, dim the lights and thank God for becoming one with us through this Prince of peace. Make time, turn down the lights; seek the true peace that God provides. We are all invited to a place at the manger: the Prince of Peace awaits us. Your world can be transformed, you can know peace. May God’s peace be with you this Christmas! TCGB.

Previously published in the Greenville Advocate

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