Homily: Christmas 2012 “Stolen Baby Jesus”

Good morning. And Merry Christmas. Yes, Christmas is here once again with all its magic, the feelings of love and family and friendship.

One of the things I look forward to most is seeing again this beautiful manger scene here in our church. It goes back through so many generations, I don’t know how old it is. We’ve had it refinished and repainted years ago. I love seeing parents and grandparents before and after each Mass through the Christmas season kneeling or standing there with their children, pointing out the various figures and explaining the Christmas story once again. Its beauty brings back all the wonderful memories of so many Christmas’s past.

My family grew up with a manger scene of course. In fact we had two of them. Each year my father would take an apple crate, knock the wood off one side and turn it upside down. He’d place our Christmas tree on top of it, and he’d cover the box with tree bark that he’d gather from the woods out back. Then he’d put the figures in. But not just the figures from our present Nativity set. No, he’d put in ALL the nativity figures that we’d gathered over the years from so many nativities; all the sheep and shepherds and cows and camels. We always had at least three Josephs and a couple of Marys, all different sizes. But there was always only one baby Jesus.

And then there was the other one, the special one, that sat on the little side table in the dining room. There was a round hole in the back of the manger at the top of the wall where a Christmas bulb fit through, shedding light on the scene below. The various pieces were simple painted plaster — chipped and marred by many, many years of handling by children and grandchildren and somewhat faded by the passing of time. All of the usual players were there: Mary and Joseph, some donkeys and camels and sheep, a few shepherds, a dog, an angel who hung on a nail on the front of the stable announcing this Good News, and some wise men bearing gifts. And the baby Jesus, of course.

In the parish houses where I’ve lived I have had prettier ones than that, I suppose. I do now. I have a large Spanish style nativity on the dining room table in the rectory, with the additional awesome wise men from a different Italian set, one on a horse, another on a camel and a third astride a huge awesome elephant. I have the molded plaster set up at my place in the country, with the figures clothed in starched material: the set I found out a few years ago was now a collector’s item. I have a little metal manger with plaster painted figures looking somewhat Japanese, the kings looking like Samarai warriors.

They are all precious to me, but none evoke the memories that the first one does, because it was on our knees that the four Metzler kids played with it as a kind of holy dollhouse. Over and over we would rearrange the figures. In fact, my folks would say they would come in and find Mary in the strangest of places sometimes. This wasn’t out of disrespect. It was just children trying to take hold of this amazing, familiar story and make it our own.

We still do it, of course. In manger scenes the world over we depict this so familiar scene and if we think to do so, we pause each season to make it our own once again. It was a few Christmases ago that I was in downtown Chicago. I stopped for a moment before the Nativity Scene on Daley Plaza. That one is nearly life-size and, as expected, it offers all the usual players. Only if you look closely, you will see that baby Jesus is chained to the ground: ensuring that no prankster will carry him off.

Because it happens every year, it seems. In fact, out of curiosity I looked again today and discovered that if you google ‘stolen baby Jesus’ you will find dozens of news stories of the infant being taken from manger scenes all across the country. Year after year, in town upon town, from church corners to front yards, someone will think it a great idea to take baby Jesus away, out of the manger, often never to be seen again. Oh, there is the story of the city in Florida which attached a GPS tracking device to their baby Jesus and so they were able to locate the culprit quickly. And I confess, I did find some measure of amusement in the story of the baby Jesus who showed up eight months later on the owner’s front porch with photos of his adventures attached: from sitting on a bicycle to hanging out in someone’s kitchen. And I am especially fascinated this year by the story which even got picked up by USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/19/baby-jesus-thefts-biblical-motive/1779313

Evidently this year in Wisconsin three different manger scenes from three different churches were robbed of their baby Jesus. apparently, because the thief is protesting the presence of Jesus in the manger before Christmas actually comes. So, given all of this, and yes, maybe they’ve had the baby Jesus stolen before…. the city of Chicago simply

chains him to the ground.

Now I don’t stand in defense of anyone who would take Jesus from his rightful place in the manger — even if they do so on theological grounds. And yet, you and I who hear the Christmas Gospel once more today do so knowing that the real Jesus can’t be kept in the manger by means of chains. And the real Jesus? We don’t need to attach a GPS unit to him to be able to track him down. You and I encounter Jesus all the time in all sorts of places, although to be sure, perhaps often in unexpected ones.

Indeed, we discover him again whenever and wherever we are moved by the truth that Jesus was born humble and poor and that God still has the most tender of places in his heart for those for whom Christmas dinner will be hard to come by this year — and for whom a decent meal any day of the week might be only a dream.

We see Jesus in all kinds of places: whenever we recall that God loves deeply those who, like Mary and Joseph, especially immigrants, are in danger of having no warm, safe place to sleep tonight.

And yes, we see Jesus once more whenever we recall that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, can still be seen embracing those who grieve, who suffer, who struggle the whole world over, especially in war-torn countries.

No. No GPS is needed. For Jesus is as near as the next act of generosity shown to someone for whom a moment of kindness will make all the difference — sometimes for the rest of their lives. In every act of selfless sacrifice offered for another. Jesus is right here in our own hearts changed by God’s great love for us that we would be among those who risk and give and love this world and all who inhabit it.

So: remember the story is yours again this year. Take a moment this Christmas to kneel with a child before a manger scene. Handle the figures in the creche. Wonder about this holy story once again and know that this birth in a faraway time and place has come to you once more and is for you and all the world Good News. And as you do so, remember that we can’t chain Jesus to the ground. No, we can’t keep him in the manger. For in wondrous ways Jesus will keep breaking free and making his way into the world, into your and my life, into our very hearts.

In fact, I wonder where we’ll see him next, don’t you? We would do well in the days to come to keep our eyes and hearts peeled because I’m guessing Jesus is going to show up again almost before we know it. And for anyone out there who might be thinking about stealing baby Jesus? Well, there’s no need. Jesus is already yours. And the truth is you don’t have to wait for December 25th – ever –for that to be so. Rev. Janet Hunt Dancing With The Word

1 Comment

  1. Mary Riley

    Sun 30th Dec 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Quote from my memoir, which I wrote as my Thesis to get my
    degree in Creative Non Fiction From Chatham in 2004.
    I have no less than three chapters called “Gifts of The Magi”, this
    is from Gifts of The Magi 1″

    …The cfreche, the antique Italian creche from my grndmother, would be set up. We three kids ( I the youngest by 5 years) would unwrap
    each figure sitting together on the floor, one or the other of us exxaiming, “Oh yes, there’s Balthazar, the dark king!”He was my sister’s favoriete There were the sheep, the camels and the shepherd boy kneeling with a lamb, the older shephers and the wobbly, carboard star to be fixed to the back of the manger, and of the course the central figures, the sweet faced Mary in her blue robe, the the infant Christ a distincly un newborn seeming and goledn haired, white skinned figure more of a cherub than a human infant……

    Both of us, the creamic creche family, the holy and the real family had had a relativly calm year, no move that year, the holy family had gotten a good long rest from holiness and symbolism in their box in the damp cellar. But now they were back in place as the most important symbol, the fact of this latter day, Christian world on this side of the world. Both families were fragile, in need of cusioning not to break, both packed in cheek by jowl with animals.
    Our vision of the donkey, the lambs, and the camels were three dogs and always at least one (unspayed in those days) cat, who spent as much time as she could outside away from all the dogs and children.

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