By Father Thom Hennen
In these days of Advent I am frequently drawn to the image of the manger in my prayer. I find the manger to be a good image for the human heart in this Advent time, awaiting and preparing for the coming of the Christ child.
Like the crèche scenes we already see going up in our churches, everything is in place, except for the essential piece in the middle of it all — the one necessary thing that gives meaning to everything else. We prepare this “manger” that is the heart for Jesus, and we do this not only in the Advent season but every day. We do our best to make this crude bed of our heart a suitable and welcoming place for the Holy Child.
Of course, there is still some confusion among people about what exactly the manger is. Often when people hear the word “manger” they think of the stable in which Jesus was born. But the “manger” is in fact the feeding trough in which the hay for the animals would have been placed. Think of it! Think of the humility of God, not only that he would assume our human nature, not only that he, the all-powerful God, would come as a tiny, helpless baby, but that he would be born in a barn with a feed bin for a bed! And so, the manger is an image of the heart in preparation for Christ, and it is also a wonderful image to remember the great humility of God in the incarnation.
As I think of the requirements of a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life, or to lay service within the Church, this is surely the foremost: humility. If God can be born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough for a crib, then surely we can and ought to come down from the heights of our egoism in order to be placed, like a child in a manger, at the service of a hurting world.
Reflecting further on what the manger means, it is also an image of self-sacrificial service, which flows naturally from humility. The manger is a feed bin, a place for food. Christ came to be our food, to give of himself for our nourishment. And so, it is only fitting that he should be laid in a feeding trough. This becomes even more meaningful when we recall that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a name that means “house of bread,” and when we recall his words from the famous Bread of Life Discourse of John’s Gospel: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). In the same way, those who are called to lives of self-sacrificial service within the Church are called to be food for others. In imitation of our Lord we are called to live truly eucharistic lives. We should, in a sense, allow ourselves to be consumed by the ones we serve. The manger reminds us of this.
Of course, the motivation for all of this is love. It is out of love that God humbles himself in the Incarnation and lays himself down in self-sacrificial service to be our food. Vocations must be born of this same love. All of this — joyful waiting, humility, service and love — is found in that little image of the manger.
(Fr. Hennen is vocations director for the Davenport Diocese. Contact him at (563) 888-4255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)