The three magi in the nativity scene on the shelf in the living room at Pat and Paul Christley’s home weren’t holding the traditional gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. The first was holding a baby bottle; practical; the second was holding a wrapped present; sweet. But the third—I’ve never forgotten this. The third was holding…
Nothing. Nothing. Just stood there before the manger with empty hands. I found it so perplexing. That image stayed with me long after I left their home. How can you come to the manger at Christmas empty-handed?
I think I know. Journey through a year such as our year has been. A year that by its end, our having navigated that whole year with a daily awareness, challenges, dreaming of about it even at night, of the pandemic protocols we must follow, the caution, the distancing, the care we have to take, the concerns and worries, the news we have of this person and that person ill or passed away. By the time we get to Christmas, no wonder our focus is a little blurred; our devotion somewhat diffracted. So much separation within our community, within our church family—even within our biological families. And sharing on top of that the weight and freight of the universal nature of this profound and sustained crisis the whole world is sharing.
Given the year behind masks that is nearly behind us and the winter ahead that looms, nip and tuck between vaccine and virus, what is there to bring to that manger? We’re doing well just to show up—and even that is figurative. Most of us aren’t here. We’re in our kitchens and living rooms or studies in front of a screen and many of us are not with the people we love the most. It’s Christmas and we’re separated from those we love. “All our friends who are dear to us will be near to us once more.” That song was not written during Covid.
Maybe this—maybe this is the year for that particular nativity set in the living room of my former parishioners, the Christleys, to find its way into all our living rooms, and for that third figure to come to the fore, featured ever most prominently. If ever there were a year for empty hands, this must be it.
But what if empty hands, by some shift of perspective inside of us—we might call it a Christmas awareness, or by some remarkable grace beyond us, we might call that a Christmas miracle? What if empty hands could somehow become open hands?
As though presenting our own hearts in all their weariness and vexation and worry; their wanting to know some hope, to believe, to wonder once again with the wonder of a child, to welcome the possibility of grace—that grace by which that which is weak becomes strong, fear turns to love, and emptiness becomes openness.
What shall I give, poor as I am, distracted as I am; out of rhythm, out of sync, out of sorts, out of place, out of kilter as I am? What can I give? Except all that’s left, what I prize perhaps the most in me—my heart.
Sometimes it’s when we become the least certain of our path, or the energies to propel us forward on it; our bearings; or our assurance that all shall be well when those things become shaky; that we become the most real before God. And God becomes the most real to us. That’s been true in my life.
Our empty hands become open hands, and we bring to the manger—we bring to the manger ourselves. That’s all. And that’s all. Everything we are. And there we meet God in the beauty and grace of that holy place that is the manger where the savior has been born, not only for the life of the world, but for you and for me. Maybe that could happen for you and for me, this year like never before.
Some years ago a group of American teachers were invited by the Russian Dept. of Education to do a teaching module for an orphanage there. With few supplies, and children of all ages, to teach with this module, they decided—it was December when they went—they decided to teach the nativity story with a simple hands-on project.
Cardboard was cut out to make a manger; paper napkins were shredded to be the hay; dark tan felt was cut out to make the figure of a baby; an old flannel nightgown was cut into small pieces to wrap the child.
As the teachers walked around observing the children’s progress with their art activity, one teacher looked over Misha’s little shoulder and saw two babies in the manger, side by side. That’s not exactly how the story goes, as you know. She called the interpreter and had them ask Misha to tell her the story, to see if he had heard it accurately. Misha began to tell the story; Mary and Joseph journeying far from home, Bethlehem, no room in the inn, a stable, a baby is born and placed in a manger. He knew the story, but then he went on:
I had no gift to bring the baby Jesus. I thought, what could I give? What could I give?
So I asked the baby Jesus, “Is it alright if I lie next to you to keep you warm?”
And the baby Jesus said, “That is the best gift that you could give me.”
And then he said, “Do you have a family?” Misha said, “I don’t have a mother or a father.” And Jesus said, “Then I will be your family.”
Jesus said to us, to you and to me, do you have a family? And we said, yes, but we cannot be with them. It is not safe to travel, it is not safe to be with others, even our own beloved family.
And Jesus said, Then I will be your family.
And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, born in a stable, and became our family.
When our empty hands become open hands, not only do we have more to give than we ever knew; but also—also, more to receive.