What I Learned from a Babyless Manger

Back in 2018, I was jobless and a new dog owner. So I spent a lot of time walking the neighborhood. My daughter and I would walk half mile laps between Fairview and Cleveland avenues in St. Paul, getting to know houses and people we hadn’t ever noticed before.

During Advent, we noticed that one house was building a progressive Nativity scene – first some hay bales showed up, then a few days later a rugged stable. Some pine boughs. A star. I loved seeing it grow, and with it my anticipation of a big payoff – of Jesus in the manger on Christmas. On the last Sunday of Advent there was a cradle, and we knew the good stuff was coming. The day before Christmas Eve, a lantern.

Then, nothing. No baby. Christmas Eve morning came, no baby. Christmas Eve night, no baby. Christmas Day, no baby. We worried something had happened to the inhabitants of the house. We felt deprived of the climax – it was such a let-down. At first.

I know at that first Christmas people were waiting for a Messiah, for someone to save them and make everything better. That Advent I was watching the Nativity build, waiting for the payoff, a doll in a manger that said Christmas is here and love will grow.

Without a symbolic baby, what was there? But there was a lantern, and there was a shelter, and there was me, and my daughter and my dog wondering at the progression. And we decided that the payoff had to be this: all the pieces and components of love and joy were there, and that was enough to get us into the next year.

I can’t find a reading from Father Clay about Advent specifically, but I like this one about finding truth. I had to let go of a lot of things that had been “true” to me that year. So much of my identity came from my work, and I had been telling myself that I *HAD* to do things a certain way to provide for my family and that the things I was giving up now – time with Will and Anna first and foremost – weren’t really mine to have. I thought the adult thing was to do my very best work for a company so I could have a steady, dependable paycheck. I had to be responsible. I had to have that symbolic, unassailable sign that I was doing the right thing.

And yet, at the end of my hardest, most productive year at that company, there was no baby in a manger, no reward I could be proud of: there was a layoff package and talking points about stranded costs. The layoff wasn’t the reward I expected or the truth I wanted, but when the disappointment cleared, I found I had all the pieces and components to live my best life: to do good work and be the mother I wanted to be, and to be happy.

Our first reaction on Christmas morning, when there was no baby, just a light, was “Is this all there is?” Yes, that was all there was, and it was enough.

(A week later I met the homeowner – she had gone out of town and forgotten to put a doll in the manger – just didn’t get to it. That’s cool. The lesson was stronger, for me, without it.)

“The Truth”

We are never so ignorant as when we think we have the truth. When we think we have the truth, we close our minds. We let in only what agrees with what we already think.

We come closer to the truth when we search with open minds and humbly admit how little we know. To be a truth-seeker is to have more questions than answers.

Smile, God Loves You.

Father Clay

From the letter “The Truth” in Dear People Whom God Loves, (c) 1999

3 thoughts on “What I Learned from a Babyless Manger

  1. I enjoyed reading the fruits of the Babyless Manger. Did you get the St. Paul Sunday paper? If so, did you read “Lemonade Christmas”? I think you would enjoy it. I think it was in the LIFE section.

    Bob is very slowly making progress. Still on oxygen and two therapists and a nurse come in two or three times a week. But…he is making progress! Call me when you want to pick up the cd’s. HUGS/Lois



  2. Your initial response showed perfect Christian analysis and emotion! How does a Christian forget Baby Jesus? What is Christmas without Him? The homeowner was sadly practicing the secular holiday season of public display. Matthew 6:1 NASB “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” He is the Truth!

    Prayers for you and your family to experience many complete Nativities this Christmas!


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