Manger and Cross

Your children are nestled safely in their beds on this Christmas Eve night; your wife who is exhausted from the preparation for tomorrow’s big day has also decided to go to bed early. You, in Santa like fashion, decide to sneak away to that one lone department store still open on this Holy night for a couple last minute surprise gifts for your wife and children.

You are in and out of the store in a flash finding exactly what you were looking for. As you drive home mixed feelings run through your mind. You wish on one hand that this department store was closed and their employees were home with their families. On the other hand, you are thrilled that you found the perfect last minute gifts. Your heart is full of joy and anticipation as you think ahead to tomorrow and the excited look on your wife’s face and the big smiles from your children as they open these presents.

You make your last turn onto your street in your quiet neighborhood and suddenly you are struck with fear. In front of you is your home fully engulfed in flames. Time seems frozen. Neighbors with whom you had sung Christmas Carols andsipped eggnogonly a few hoursago now appear as frozen lifeless snowmen peering motionless at your burning home. The colorful Christmas lights adorning the homes of your neighbors appear in stunning contrast to your home now ablaze.

In utter desperation you speed to the front of your house, slam on the brakes and jump from the car nearly forgetting to put it in park. You run to the front door. Panic races through your mind. The heat emanating from the lower lever of the house prevents you from entering. Flames are leaping from the first story windows and racing up the side of your house. You hear screams for help from your family. You run around the house trying to find some method of entry. There is no way to get in. Briefly you are tortured with the thought of racing into the 1200 degree flames in an attempt to get to the second floor where all of the bedrooms are located. You realize that it would be a futile attempt and would certainly result in your death, yet your mind searches franticly for some method to save your family.

Overwhelmed with despair you fall to your knees. Your thoughts fly to that manger you had placed on the mantel earlier that day. You had noticed a frayed wire but you told yourself you would look into it later. At that moment you are certain that it must have sparked the fire and that fire crept up the wall to the beautiful pine wreath hanging above the fire place. Not lost in your mind is the irony that the wreath, that symbol of Christmas joy, most likely exploded into flames and those flames rapidly spread through the entire lower level of your home. There, on your knees, you do the only thing you know to do…you cry out in a loud voice, “my God, my God why have you forsaken me.”

Suddenly at that moment fire trucks arrive, with no hesitation the firemen have ladders going up to the upper bedrooms. You hope beyond hope they have arrived in time……… Just then you suddenly awake. Startled into consciousness you sit straight up in a cold sweat realizing this was just a horrible nightmare. You shake your head to erase this horrible scene from your thoughts. Still stuck in your mind though, are the last words in your dream. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

While this is a fabricated horrific story perhaps it somewhat depicts the feelings that God our almighty Father might have experienced on the eve of that first Christmas. For God, all time is in the present. To God the incarnation of his son was really the first step to his death on Calvary. In the dream it was the faulty wire on the Nativity set that set in motion the chain of events that led to the fire. In real life, it was the nativity and the birth of the Christ Child that set into motion the events of Holy Week 33 years later, leading to His death on a cross.

Now please take a very good look at this picture by the artist Beate Heinen. The title of the picture is “Manger and Cross”. Notice that the Christ child is depicted in a cave and the manger looks eerily like a coffin. Of course we know that Jesus, after his crucifixion, is buried in a cave. Allow that to sink in for a moment. Our savior starts and concludes his human existence in a cave.

Follow the path from the manger. It begins in a cave but then makes its way through a beautiful garden. Next it winds its way through the trees. Then further up the path it becomes barren. The vibrant color gives way to gloominess. In the back ground of the picture we see 3 crosses. Notice nothing is growing in that area. This is a place of death.

Isn’t it so much easier to think of the birth of Jesus as simply a joyous event? Sure all the hosts in heaven were singing on that special night of his birth. But we must not lose sight of the fact of what their joy was about. Christ’s birth signaled the coming salvation for all mankind. God and all of the heavenly hosts knew this birth signaled the beginning of the journey to the cross. Jesus, who was one with the Father in the Trinity, freely accepted his incarnation. He in his Godliness knew the outcome of what starts out as a joyous event.

Now let’s go back to the nightmare. Seared in the father’s memory is the happiness and joy of his wife and children standing around singing “O come O come Emanuel” while he carefully placed the manger on the mantel above the fireplace. Now in his grief, he sees the manger as the source of the fire and the instrument of impending death. The father awoke suddenly just as the firemen were arriving and before the dream revealed the fate of his family, not knowing the eventual outcome the fathers words “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” are clearly a cry of despair.

During Holy Week most of us have listened as these same words are spoken by Jesus during his passion. Perhaps we listen to these words with heavy hearts and contemplate the possibility that Jesus really thought his father had abandoned him. But there is another way to possibly hear these words.

At the time of Jesus’ life the Psalms that we have all come to know from the Bible were not numbered as they are today. People in those days knew the Psalms very well but they often identified them by a key verse or phrase contained within the Psalm itself. The Jewish people gathered around his cross would have recognized the phrase Jesus uttered as the beginning of a very familiar Psalm. They had studied these Psalms from the time of their youth.

Perhaps Jesus as he hung in his tortured condition on the cross hardly able to breath, with his tongue swollen and parched painfully lifted himself by pulling on his hands with the nails tearing through his flesh just long enough to share with everyone gathered there, not words of despair, but the beginning words of Psalm 22, a Psalm from David that they would have known as a Psalm of hope and trust in the Father. Let’s take a look:

You can click here to read the entire Psalm or click hereto print off a PDF version of Psalm 22 to share with your family during this Advent Season. But let’s look at a few key verses here:

The Psalm appears to begin with words of despair, these very same words Jesus uttered from the cross:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.

But notice that a shift takes place in this Psalm when David wrote this:

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe from my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Next, in the Psalm, David paints a picture of troubled times, a picture so closely associated with the crucifixion. But even here notice the hope and trust in God at the conclusion:

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shriveled;

I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me;

they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!

Eventually, as I stated above, Psalm 22 ends not in despair but in hope. Notice also that the artists painting ends with a blue sky behind the three crosses. Some scholars believe that Jesus was leaving all of us a message from the cross. It is a message of Hope:

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;

and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;

before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,

and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

From the time of our birth until the time of our death we will from time to time be surrounded by the dogs and evil doers mentioned in the Psalm. These are the dogs of sin waiting to devour us, but as the Psalm states we must place our trust in God.

Advent is a time of hope. The man in his dream hopes that the firemen arrive in time to rescue his family. The beautiful painting depicts the blue sky of hope, and from the cross Jesus gave us a message and Psalm of hope. So in this third week of Advent as we look with anticipation to Christmas Day let’s place our hope in the source of our salvation JESUS CHRIST.

Dear Heavenly Father, during thisseason of Advent please keep keenly in my mindthat the birth of the baby Jesus was the first step towards the salvation of the cross. Let me never lose sight of the magnitude of your love for me, amen.

Brian Pusateri
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