by Susan Schneider

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Growing up as a child of missionaries in the Philippines, Christmas trees were uncommon. We did not decorate a tree as part of our holiday tradition. Instead, my father built a rustic manger out of firewood banded together with rope. Our family placed our gifts around the manger. Sometime between Christmas Eve worship and our waking to open gifts on Christmas morning, one of our dolls wrapped in swaddling clothes had been laid in it. In most circumstances an animal’s feeding trough is not considered a decorative item, but for Christians at Christmas time, it is the cradle of Christ. A manger is at the heart of the promise that God shows up in unlikely places, bestowing on all of us the life-giving and enriching presence of Christ.

I remember coming home from Christmas Eve worship one night to discover in our manger, not the little Lord Jesus, but our dachshund Princess asleep on the hay. We had a good laugh that year about how instead of the Prince of Peace, we had received the gift of the Princess of Peace. Eventually she was moved to her own (much more comfortable) bed and the Baby Jesus once again took up residence in our manger. But that moment comes back to me sometimes this busy season and makes me wonder, “What’s in our manger this year? What precious and delightful gift is at the heart of this celebration?”

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10b)

Christmas is the time of year especially appointed for rejoicing in the abundant life that Jesus brings into the world. God’s extravagant gift of life through the Baby Jesus is the reason for all of our parties and gift-exchanging and decorating during the Christmas season.

Into a world so burdened with disease and wars and poverty and grief that there is no light, the Light of the World comes among us, bringing joy and hope. The proper place for such a blessing is right in the center of our holiday. It is our relief and gratitude for the gift of God-with-us that leads us to respond with generous gift-giving and festivals of our own. But sometimes the response crowds out the initial gift. What becomes of Christmas if there is no room for the Baby?

It’s not that Christmas parties and gift-giving are bad, but they must be kept in proportion to the reverence we express. On that first Christmas, Mary and Joseph could not find a place to stay in Bethlehem. There were no vacancies in the inns, so they ended up in a barn. With utter disregard for Mary’s condition or Joseph’s panic, people turned them away, citing more important things going on. The only reason we embrace the symbol of the manger is that is was the only crib available for Jesus. It should be a cautionary sign to us that when we get too caught up in other things, the Lord ends up out in the cold. What if there is no room for Jesus again this year because our “mangers” are filled with other things?

I’m no Scrooge. I believe parties and the excessive use of glitter are appropriate responses to Christ’s birth among us. It is unfortunately true, however, that for many of us these celebrations of abundance become distorted and unhealthy. What begins as a tribute to abundant life results in unhelpful binging. Sharing good food morphs into overeating. Sharing holiday drinks turns into drunkenness followed by wicked hangovers. And sharing presents leads to spending ourselves into a financial hole.

How do we walk that fine line of appreciating and enjoying the Christmas season without tipping over into “I overdid it again” territory? How do we celebrate God’s gift to us of abundant life appropriately?

My mantra this year is going to be “Make sure there’s room for the Baby.” I intend to gauge whether or not I need another cookie or cup of eggnog by whether or not I am actually savoring the experience—or simply piling too much goodness in for my own good. I hope to cut off spending on gifts when there is no more money allotted for them in my budget. I want to say no to invitations when I feel myself exhausted and frazzled.

I want to sing more carols and light more candles. I want more silent nights admiring the lights on the tree. I want to make sure I listen to the Marys and Josephs of our time— those who feel neglected and alone, with no safe place to go. I want to ensure that in all his Birthday Celebrations, I’ve not forgotten about the Baby Jesus.

If my manger is too full, I fear that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, will once again be left looking for a place that has accommodations for them. I want to make sure that whatever else fills my time and body and spirit, I am keeping the heart of the season open and available for Jesus to show up.

Of course, I will not get it right every time. No doubt there will be times when I dip into the excesses of the cultural tide of Christmas chaos that sweeps the Christian message along. But God’s idea of abundant life does not include shaming ourselves or destructive acts of penitence. Instead, on those occasions when I need to repent, I plan to return to the memory of our dachshund Princess in the manger. I will reflect on what a kick our family got from her audacity and her innocence. I want to trust that when God finds me placing myself or something else at the heart of the season, God will giggle before gently removing whatever has taken up residence in the spot that should be God’s own.

I want to imagine God as a mother sheep in a stable in Bethlehem, gently nudging the lambs out of the way to keep the manger open for the Baby Jesus. I count on God’s mercy when I get in the way. After all, the good news of great joy Jesus came to bring us is that God is particularly abundant in forgiveness and fresh starts. Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Susan Schneider is the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, Wis.

Discussion questions:

1.   What tends to get in the way of your celebration of abundant life at Christmas time? How can you minimize that distraction?

2.   What enhances your celebration of abundant life? How can you make more space for such experiences this year?

3.   Who or what can help you remember that God loves you when you overdo it this season?