In 1994, two Americans were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach morality and ethics in their prisons and in a large orphanage. They were also told they could teach from the perspective of their faith.
So they went as “witnesses to the light”, like John the Baptist in our Gospel text. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world”
The experience of these two Americans in a Russian orphanage reveals to us the true light which is coming into the world.
There were about 100 boys and girls in the orphanage, children who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program. The two Americans came to the orphanage so that the children could hear for the first time the traditional story of Christmas. This was their story.
We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened.
Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city. Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw.
Small squares of flannel cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the U.S.
The orphans were busy assembling the mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat – he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.
Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he related the happenings accurately – until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus into the manager.
Then Misha started to ad lib. He made us his own ending to the story as he said, “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him – for always.”
John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” John knows that Isaiah’s prophecy is about to be fulfilled when the one comes whose sandal he is not worthy to untie. John proclaims the coming of Jesus to be with us. John proclaims Immanuel – God with us. In this Christmas season we discover, like the orphan Misha, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abandon us, but will stay with us – for always
Jesus promises to be with us:
In all these depressing, discouraging, and disillusioning situations, our Lord is with us as Immanuel, God with us. We’re never completely without companionship or support, as long as there are at least two babies in the manger.
Wouldn’t it be even better, even warmer, if there were 3 babies in the manger? What if the orphan Misha grows up and is blessed with a wife and maybe even children and grandchildren who join him in the manger? Then it would really be warm and comfy in the manger.
Ideally, marriage makes us stronger in keeping Jesus warm in us and in those we serve. In Christ, in the manger, we serve, we love, we forgive, we receive the gift of salvation and eternal life.
In Christ, in the manger, we overcome our blindness and see the manger through all the distractions of commercialism.
In Christ, in the manger, we overcome our busyness and make time for the manger both in our homes and in our church.
In Christ, in the manger, we face the challenge of doubt that has us wondering if a baby in a manger has a chance against Neo Nazis shooting worshipers in a synagogue, Syria under siege, and corrupt and brutal governments.
And yet, no single life has changed the world more than the life of the Bethlehem baby, a life that challenges people to change this world in preparation for the world to come. There’s always room for another person in the manger of the Christ-child.
But we don’t stay in the manger. We are challenged to do as Jesus did. To go out from the manger and share the story of the power of Christ in our own lives, and to tell the world about what Immanuel is up to.
Jesus invites you to join him in the manger and then to go out and share him in all ways. Share his love, forgiveness, and peace in your marriages and families. Pray in a consistent, disciplined way for troubled regions of the world, like Syria and Palestine. Agree to tutor a young person once a week at Parma Park School. Support our food pantry and brainstorm about other creative ways to reach out to our neighborhood.
Teach a Sunday school class, opening their minds and hearts to the stories of the Bible. Share your faith in the workplace. Make a commitment to daily prayer and Bible Study.
The invitation has been extended. There’s always room for another person in the manger of the Christ-child. Emmanuel – “God with us for always”.