One of the iconic places in the city of Rome is a very old church. It is called “Our Lady of the Snow” because of a miraculous snowfall that prompted the faithful to build this church as a response. In the crypt beneath the altar is a shrine that honors both the Blessed Mother and Pope John XXIII. The statue of Pope John is depicted staring intently at a few pieces of a manger, the crib in which Jesus was placed at his birth. We are tempted to forget the meaning of some these details. Here, in only a few words one detail is restored to its proper place as the description of much more than a Christmas Card.
“ 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 2:7 NAB)
And we busy ourselves by filling in the gaps. The “cold winter’s night” comes from a buried detail in the Book of Wisdom:
“For when peaceful stillness encompassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent, Your all-powerful word from heaven's royal throne leapt into the doomed land.” (Wisdom 18:14-15 NAB)
This is the sweetness of the season and it is easily embraced as the focus of our reflection. But the manger is also a sign of the rejection of mankind.
It was not too long ago that the Incarnation of the Son of God was reflected on in the Mass, at the end of the Mass in what was called the “last Gospel”. The priest and the altar servers would stop in the middle of the procession out of the Church. They would face the altar and begin the reading of the prologue of the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2 NAB)
Then the manger would, so to speak, come into view:
“He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11 NAB)
The solemn reminder of the cross is uncovered. The babe in the manger is the Lord who will give himself for the redemption of humanity. His will be the sacrifice of a great king. From manger to cross the child will be made ready for this destiny. Perhaps we will be exonerated for turning away from that looming shadow. We cannot help it even though the reminder of our sins should be enough to overcome the blindness of the reality we have constructed.