“Have you seen the baby Jesus?” the headline of a small-town news bulletin asked several days ago. Someone stole the baby Jesus from a local church’s outdoor nativity scene. Mary is still there pondering and keeping all of these things in her heart. The shepherds are still watching in wonder. Cows and donkeys are gathered around. But the manger is empty. Jesus is gone.
Jesus disappears from manger scenes more often than I knew. “Baby Jesus theft” even has a Wikipedia entry. Sometimes sheep or other figures are stolen from outdoor nativity scenes, but most of the time, the thieves take the infant.
In an interesting turn of nativity theft events this season, a figure of Mary holding the baby Jesus was taken from an outdoor display at a church in Bancroft, Ontario. A donor replaced the stolen figure with a new one that “worked,” but was not an exact match. Soon after, the original was returned. Now, the scene in Bancroft has “doubled down” (as the news headline announces), featuring two figures of Mary holding Jesus.
While I lament the vandalism of Christian icons and worry about the violence that accompanies some of the acts, reports of nativity scene thievery have caused me to reflect on possible meanings of empty mangers. This Advent season, I have found myself skeptical of too-nostalgic waiting and restless for the arrival of God’s promised reign of justice and peace. Realities of pain and suffering in our communities have stirred for me the question: How do we honor ancient traditions of Advent waiting and at the same time work with haste and a sense of urgency to end systemic prolonging of oppression in all of its forms?
An irony of this year’s Advent season is that Christmas Eve falls on the fourth Sunday in Advent. The symbolism is powerful. The whole earth groans in labor pains—yearning for God’s reign to be born in this very moment. And on this last Sunday in Advent that is also Christmas Eve, we glimpse unexpected possibilities of Gospel justice and grace dwelling with us sooner rather than later. Some ministers are folding the two liturgical moments together this Sunday, lighting the Advent candle of Love and ushering in Christmas Eve at the same time. Again, the symbolism is powerful. They are wrinkling time. Drawing together waiting for and welcoming. Singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Joy to the World” with cacophonous hope.
In a sense, that is what God did in Bethlehem all those years ago. God wrinkled time—not to ignore or hide the realities of injustice but instead to promise to end them by bringing eternity into every dimension of this present moment. God came near, folding together in a woman’s womb the edges of the cosmos with the edges of brittle, fragile, uncertain human life—not to put things in order but to turn everything upside down, inside out.
So, what are we to do if the baby goes missing from the manger, that symbol of God’s wrinkling of time to come near and transform the earth? Perhaps, in that empty manger, is a prophetic message for our Advent this year. With Jesus safe in a crèche, peered at by shepherds frozen in time and protected by surveillance cameras, perhaps our Advent waiting is too tame. Even too quaint. And we forget. We are the body of Christ, and this groaning world needs us to be out of whatever mangers cocoon our lives. This groaning world needs us to be out in our communities, wrinkling time—proclaiming God’s eternal reign now—with every action we take.
The pastor of the Bancroft church posted on her Facebook page last Wednesday wisdom for our work: “The world needs more Marys … to bear God to the world.”
Indeed. May Advent and Christmas fold in upon each other in our celebrations this year so that time is wrinkled—and justice is born in our midst. The manger is empty. So is the tomb. And we? We are the body of Christ. Let us go out and live the Gospel news.
Photo by Sheila Hunter.
About Jill Crainshaw
Jill Crainshaw is a PCUSA minister and Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is the author of several books on worship and ministry.