A Manger Full of Mercy
By John Mallon
The Sooner Catholic, December 18, 1994
There are two forms of sorrow that I think are most excruciating: (1) Knowing that we hurt someone we love, and (2) being misunderstood. It is a helpless feeling either way. We need mercy, and we can't give it to ourselves. The other's love for us is tested, while we wait chewing our nails longing for reprieve from the cold of the outer darkness. Will they forgive us? Will they at least try to understand us?
This situation is a microcosm of how we stand before God, sinners all. What did God do? He not only relieved the horror of our plight, He crawled inside and took it on from the inside-out by becoming flesh; and for us became sin, thus stripping sin of its terrible power. He moved into our flesh, our animal flesh, in the cold dung-filled stable of our hearts, and, by suffering and dying with our sin, transformed our hearts — indeed exchanged them, gave us new hearts, as He told Ezekiel, which are now temples where God dwelleth.
This is consolation. If I have hurt you and you have hurt me we can turn and offer our brokenness and pain as a gift at the Manger. The Manger was a trough from which the animals could drink and feed, and what more appropriate place to find the baby Jesus, who grew up to teach us 'My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. Unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood you have no life in you.' He also washes our feet after we've been walking around the stable, and rebukes us if we do not allow Him to. Then He tells us, as He told Peter, to do it for each other. At each Mass we are invited to eat of Mercy Personified.
A few years ago Peter Kreeft had a beautiful article in New Covenant on depression and sadness at Christmas time. For many of us it is a terribly lonely time. We live in an age when families have been cruelly shattered. Or we face yet another year without a 'special someone' to share Christmas with. We punish and accuse ourselves, probably unjustly, because things are not like a Norman Rockwell portrayal of Christmas.
We avoid the painful questions: Can I forgive those I've hurt for not understanding I never meant to hurt them? Can they forgive me when I want to hold onto being right, even if I am? Or think I am? And back and forth. The other person probably feels the same way.
But this very depression and strife can be the key to our glory. This is how we are supposed to come to the Manger. We can't come any other way. How can we clean up ourselves when He has all the soap? It is the liberating truth about our condition our imperfections are why He came! Without Jesus we are failures, but with Him we are on the journey Home where Our Father waits with the golden ring and the fatted calf. The real meaning of Christmas is the Cross. We can cry 'felix culpa!' at the Manger just as we can at the Empty Tomb.
We can get depressed at Christmas if we place ourselves under a pressure to feel happy when we might feel miserable, but joy lies not in denial of pain and failure, but in passage through the winter desert; following a star to the crib where the dung piles of our lives are transformed into finest gold adorning the temple. We are only expected to bring Him all we have: our sins.
If this truly 'tis the season to be jolly, it is not via avoidance of our desert, but our passage through it. It was a cold, still, silent night He came into, not a warm sunny day. The healthy do not need a physician, so does a sunny day need the Son? He comes to us in the broken-down stables of our lives, not glittering temples of success. Hallelujah! A Child is born!