It’s a simple tradition. We do it for the children. But after all the unwrapping of Christmas morning, it is the ritual I am still thinking about.
For weeks we worked slowly to fill a manger. Each time the children performed an act of kindness, made someone’s bed, cleared the table, let a sibling have that coveted spot on the couch for stories, they placed a pinch of hay between wood. The days were filled with plenty of non-hay-earning acts. Ugly words, pushing and punching. But there was effort. And each time I saw goodness, I tried to point it out, reward with a handful of hay.
On Christmas Eve, five-year-old Ali wrapped baby Jesus in a white dish towel and laid him in the manger. There, all our acts of charity and selflessness cushioned him, gave him place among us.
We read from Matthew 25,
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
After I explained these verses to our children, our oldest said, “I get it… so Jesus isn’t here. But if we do something nice for one of God’s children, it’s like doing it for him!” Precisely.
Then I asked them what they wanted to give Jesus for Christmas. “What can you work on this next year? What do you think Jesus wants most from you?”
Gordon said, “a blanket.” Spencer said, “to be softer.” Sami said, “to be nice to everyone.” Ali said, “to be nice to Eliza.” Eliza said, “to be nice to Ali.” (Can you tell where we have some sibling rivalry?) Daddy said, “more patience.” And Mommy said, “more patience, and no yelling.”
We scribbled our gifts onto paper and placed them around the manger.
Days later, though, I am still thinking about my gift.
Are those the things he really needs from me? What am I holding back? What part of me needs redemption, stretching, cleansing? What is it he would ask me to do if he sat down next to me and looked past my eyes into the hidden parts of my heart?
Is there something more rooted and less visible (even to myself), that I need to put on the table? Something I need to give over, lay down, or pick up? Those aren’t easy questions to ask. But I have been searching it out and wondering.
Christina Rosetti’s words, matched with Harold Darke’s beautiful Christmas melody, have been arcing through my mind. What can I give him? Poor as I am… If I were a wise man, I would do my part… Yet, what can I give him… Give my heart.
We are poor. All of us. Flannery O’Connor wrote,
I believe that the basic experience of everyone is the experience of limitation…or, if you will, of poverty.
Spiritual poverty is something we must experience if we are to understand our need for a Savior. But ironically, it is when we are truly poor, when we realize how flawed and fallen we are, that we recognize how much we have to offer.
I know the dark corners of my heart, those things I need to stop carrying, the pieces of soul I’ve let harden, the time-wasters, the criticisms, the anger that turns me from the light. And I know how hard it is to give them up, hand them over. Because I’ve tried. And it is a process. A slow but possible progression.
Whatever gift we choose to give Jesus will involve sacrifice. Sacrifice of our habits, our time, our possessions, our insecurities, our will.
But Gordon B. Hinckley said,
Sacrifice is the very essence of religion; it is the keystone of happy home life, the basis of true friendship, the foundation of peaceful community living, of sound relations among people and nations… Without sacrifice there is no true worship of God.
We spend so much of life acquiring, only to learn, sometimes painfully, how to let go.
I am wondering, what gifts are you giving Jesus this year? And what are your thoughts on sacrifice with respect to loving God?