By Marcia Lee
As we walk during las posadas, we remember the journey of Mary and Joseph and their arrival to the manager in Bethlehem. The image of the manger was first brought to the Christmas celebration by St. Francis of Assisi. He said, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” (From the accounts of St. Bonaventure).
St. Francis set up an empty manger in a cave. It is said that as St. Francis preached, a vision of the baby Jesus came into the manger. Prior to St. Francis, people did not include a manger scene in their Christmas celebration, but now we see them in churches and on the side of the road.
In my experience, in the United States, the mangers that I have seen have been made of wood and been separate from people’s homes. Through this lens, mangers have meant to me that Jesus’ family were people in a strange land, with no place for them in the inn, and therefore, they were stuck in a cold structure with open space between the wooden planks.
However, I was recently told by a Palestinian friend from Bethlehem that there is no way Jesus would have been born into a wooden manger. In Bethlehem, there is not enough wood that it would have been used to build a structure for animals. My friend said, during the time of Jesus, in the winter, ‘the manger’ would have been the lower level of the cave and the humans would have lived in the upper level. It would have been a fairly enclosed space and the first and second levels were connected. The animals in the lower cave would have helped to heat up the space where the people lived.
Although Francis built the manger in a cave, we have built it in a wooden barn, within our own culture’s understanding, and not what was true in Bethlehem. Now that I know more of what was real, the story of the manger has changed me. I have started wondering, who were the people who invited Mary and Joseph into their cave? This was not a manger set aside from their home; this was the first floor of their home. Why did they let this young, unmarried, pregnant couple into their home? How did they decide what was or was not safe for their family and for Mary and Joseph? What were the stories of the people who gave what they had?
Would I do the same today? Would I let strangers who have nowhere to sleep stay in the sunroom in my house? Would I welcome a pregnant mother with two children sleeping in her car to stay in the first floor of my house? How can I be both welcoming and wise?
I admit that I have had these opportunities and I have not always said yes. I believe that I did the best I could in those situations, but perhaps there could have been a third way. I am challenged this Advent, to try on a different worldview. As I prepare my home and heart for the celebration of the cave birth of ‘the Babe of Bethlehem,’ as St. Francis called Him, I will take stock of what and whom I consider to be ‘mine,’ work to clear the lenses of culture and racism that create mangers after my own image, and make a bit more space in my cave for unexpected guests.
I invite you to join me on this journey.
Marcia Lee is a seeker of powerful questions, meaningful conversations, and good jokes. She works to align her words with her actions through work in healing justice, restorative justice. She lives in Detroit at Taproot Sanctuary, an intentional community practicing at the crossroads of right relationship with the earth, our neighbors, and God.