It started like this:
“Imagine,” said the man leading our Advent retreat. “Imagine you’re someone in the scene. It could be Mary or Jesus, an angel or goat. Whatever. Just spend some time there and listen for what God has to say to you.”
“Whatever,” he said, and a moment later I saw myself as the manger.
Yep. The manger: Inanimate. Hard. Empty. But open. A trough waiting to be filled.
I sat in the silence, allowing myself to be this manger: Watching Mary as she set the bundled Christ within me. Feeling the warmth of his wriggling body. Oh, to be a place for the Son of Man to lay his head! Oh, to receive the Presence of God!
This is enough. But there was more.
A (NOT SO) GREAT ESCAPE
Soon I began to experience a familiar restlessness, and along with it, a growing anxiety – a desire to run, to flee, to somehow escape. I can think of a few reasons why being the manger made me uncomfortable, topmost among them the two abortions I had as a teenager. In a way, I am always an empty manger.
So I let the feelings come, and received the comfort in Mary’s gaze as she entrusted her newborn son to me. There was no condemnation, no restlessness, no fear.
Yet the desire to escape remained. What, then, do I want to escape? I wondered.
I knew the answer before I finished the question: Myself.
I’ve spent much of my life trying to escape myself, but until recently, I believed I was only trying to escape my thoughts, my feelings, my past, my circumstances. Turns out, running from those things IS running from myself. And more importantly, no matter how much I try, I can never truly escape me.
And boy have I tried! Drugs, alcohol, entertainment, worry, anger, getting in my car and driving aimlessly for hours. None of it works for very long. Not even throwing myself into God and prayer.
You see, God doesn’t want us to escape ourselves.
Flee yourself by running to God and sure, he’ll hold you. But eventually, He’ll lift your chin and make you look Him in the eye…to see yourself reflected there.
God will make you look at you.
So there I was, curled up in a ball, a rather anxious little manger, and I let myself wonder some more: What if I fled right now, only in my mind, only for a moment? How would I feel then?
I anticipated a sense of distraction or relief, but instead I felt something totally unexpected:
At first this seemed out of place. But then I saw her: the part of me I leave behind every time I try to run. She was small, alone, arms wrapped around her knees, shivering from the cold of rejection. And for the first time in my almost 50 years, I realized that I cannot run from myself without also abandoning myself.
Self-escape is self-abandonment.
Suddenly I feel like a dog who forgets she’s on a leash and takes off running only to be yanked back by her collar. Even the relief I seek causes me pain. I feel more trapped than ever.
Forget the dog on a leash. Now I am Laurence Sterne’s starling, the wings of my heart beating furiously against its cage: I can’t get out! I can’t get out!
Oh how I want to run!
But God says: “Stay…..Stay…..Stay.”
So I stayed. I felt the fear. I waited inside the bars of my heart. The Starling’s cry reverberating through my hollow bones: No! I can’t get out! I can’t get out!
Then, clear as day, I heard Jesus say: “That’s OK. I can get in.”
That’s OK. I can get in.
What’s a cage to Christ?
ALL IN ALL
I can hardly describe what happened next. It was as if I began to see in fractals: the entire cosmos – galaxies, earth, people, atoms, the emptiness in between – in endless motion, a tesseract folding and unfolding. And Christ impregnating it all. The All in all and all in All.
Christ in me, the hope of glory.
I can’t get out because there’s nowhere to go.
No outside. No inside. Immanuel. God with us.
And just like that I am back in Bethlehem. Carried on the wings of eternity herself, lilting through the starry Judean sky, over the shepherds on the threshold, down to the earth beneath the babe, I am the manger.
We couldn’t get out. Of our heads. Of our suffering. Of our own way. Of our loneliness. Of the mess we made. Of the mess others made around us.
But He got in.
Perhaps He always was in – always IS in – but blinded as we are by this dark world, we struggle to recognize Him. So our relentless Lover found another way to step into our line of sight, to bend the light around his being, and shout into our souls “I Am!”
Perhaps all of human history can be summed up in the exchange between a desperate woman: “I can’t get out!”
And the Son of God: “That’s OK. I can get in…
into the world
into the womb
into the manger
into the cage of your raging heart.
I Am with you, all along.”
© Nichole Liza Q.