My Heart's A Manger

Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-6)
Mary, clearly distressed from childbirth, holds her "newborn" son, Jesus. Doting animals included. 
Perhaps you've heard of a tradition some Christian families have: As Advent begins, the family sets up a Nativity scene. When a child does a good deed, he or she may put a piece of hay in the manger of the family's Nativity set.
The idea is that, when Christmas rolls around, the manger will be a bed of soft hay, ready for Jesus to be born of Mary. Years ago, my family practiced this tradition. Throughout Advent, we kids burst with excitement at the end of each day as we listed our good deeds to Dad, who would reward us with a few pieces of hay. I remember carefully arranging the hay to prepare for the tiny ceramic Jesus, soon to arrive. 

Advent is a time for preparation. We prepare for Christmas; we prepare our hearts to welcome the infant Jesus. 

As a cradle Catholic, I could probably recite verbatim the verse in Luke that recounts Jesus' birth. Swaddling clothes, manger, no room at the inn. Most Christmas story board books are made from that verse. There's Jesus, lying in a manger of hay with a halo around his head. He sleeps peacefully while Mary, his doting mother, and several smiling cartoonish farm animals look on. Looking at these scenes, it's easy to forget the immeasurable humility of the Lord. Our God and Savior was born in a stable. As the wonderful Venerable Fulton Sheen puts it
No room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. The inn was the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world's moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But there's no room in the place where the world gathers. The stable is a place for outcasts, the ignored and the forgotten. 
The world might have expected the Son of God to be born in an inn; a stable would certainly be the last place in the world where one would look for him. The lesson is: divinity is always where you least expect to find it. So the Son of God made man is invited to enter into his own world through a back door.
Our God's captivating Love is beyond my understanding. Through a woman, Mary, He has come down to the earth He created just for us. For me. For you. And He continues to be present, in all the tabernacles of the world, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and--through communion--in our hearts. The Lord is infinitely greater than we, but He comes out of love for us. Just as no one would expect Jesus to be born in a stable or placed in a manger, where the cattle feed, no one would expect Jesus to come into our hearts. But he was and he does. 

My heart is a manger. It's the last place I'd expect Jesus to be. It's riddled with sin, despair, darkness, and depravity. During Advent, I prepare my heart for Jesus. Through tiny good deeds, or difficult but just choices, I can place one piece of hay at a time in my little manger of a heart. There might not be cattle feeding there, but my heart, like a manger, is only good when I've placed enough hay inside. 

Maybe my heart-manger isn't soft enough yet for Jesus' birth. Maybe my "manger" will still be fairly empty come Christmas morning. Jesus will come into my heart anyway because he loves. 

But I'm still trying to prepare a place for him to lay his head. 

Lord, come into our hearts at Christmas and fill us with Your Joy. 

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