The Crucifix in the Manger

“My Christmas is ruined,” the woman shouted as she bolted from the church. Up until that point she felt her Christmas celebration had been most enjoyable. The Christmas tree and the poinsettias had made a beautiful scene as they surrounded the altar, which was covered in festive white and gold brocade. The choir had sung her favorite Christmas anthems and she with everyone had sung those old, familiar carols. The candle-light setting gave just the right affect. The celebration of those annual Christmas customs made her feel good.

 

All was warm and comforting, that is, until she went up to the manger after the service. As she approached the manger she expected to see the little baby Jesus so cute and so helpless in His perfectly carved wooden manger, surrounded by antiseptically clean straw and accompanied by cattle who simply lowed — but did nothing to foul the scene!  When she pulled back the swaddling clothes, to her horror she saw not the baby Jesus but an adult, crucified Jesus, nailed to a cross, complete with wound marks and blood. It was not what she expected. It was not what she wanted !

 

The woman was what clergy often call a “C and E” — one who attends church only on Christmas and Easter, whose spiritual interest is not active disciple-ship but merely an enjoyment of various religious symbols around “the holidays.” I’ve met this person many times.

One afternoon, when I was still in high school, I went into our church’s office after the staff had gone home. The telephone rang and I answered it. Christmas was just a week away. The caller wanted to know what our choir was singing that Christmas Eve. I mentioned the several pieces and the caller responded, “Nothing from Handel’s Messiah?” “No,” I replied. “Do you know what church in town is doing something from the Messiah?” “No,” I responded. “Why do you ask?” “I go to church twice a year and on Christmas Eve I want something from the Messiah.”

Too often, instead of using Christmas and Easter to help people come to a real saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, some churches pander, giving the “C and E” crowd the sentimentality they crave. What a lost opportunity for the Gospel!

 

But Why a Crucifix?

I‟ve heard many people dismiss the crucifix with abrupt statements of, “I don‟t worship a dead Christ.” Yet many of these people love the manger. Might we not equally say, “I don‟t worship a baby”?

We need representations of all aspects of our Lord‟s life to understand the whole story. This is why the observance of the Church Year is so vital. Without it, yes, we celebrate the birth of Christ, but with-out the Advent prophetic preparation and the wonderful lead-in stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John, Mary and Joseph (read them in Luke 1:5-80). We‟re missing the lead-in. Without The Church Year Easter is merely an empty tomb, celebrating Jesus‟ resurrection … but from what?

 

[My book Boot Camp for Christians has forty easy-to-read mini-chapters on various aspects of the Christian faith. About one third of these chapters are about the events of Jesus’ life as celebrated in the various seasons of The Church Year, and their application to our lives as disciples. To order, see pages 2-3 of this Newsletter.]

 

In the early years of Institute for Christian Renewal I was a non-stipendiary assistant at St. Paul‟s Church, Malden, Mass. Our church building had three altars. One, where sometimes confessions were heard, had a crucifix over it. Over the high altar was a bare cross. Over the altar on the other side, where we often prayed for the sick, was a “Christus Victor,” the Ascended Christ, preparing to come again, clad in full priestly vestments. From the back, as you looked from left to right you saw, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Put all of this together: we worship Jesus Who was incarnate as a baby; Who lived, taught and worked miracles; Who died on the cross for my sins; Who rose on the third day and spent forty days on earth in His resurrection body before ascending to the Father; Who sits at the right hand of the Father to plead for us; and is pre-paring to return at His Second Coming. That — all of that and nothing less than that — is Who we worship. Merely a risen Christ is not the full Gospel story. I need a manger; paintings of Jesus teaching, working miracles and rescuing a lost sheep; a crucifix; a bare cross; a “Christus Victor” cross. And so do you!

 

Why Do So Many Like the Manger but Not Like the Crucifix?

 

The baby Jesus in a manger is cute and sweet. He asks and demands nothing. We can get sentimental about Him in whatever way we choose. While few people make idols of graven images, many make idols of ideas and feelings, crafting them so they can feel good but never have to change their lives. The image of this baby Jesus without the rest of the images of His life is an idol — a mental recreation of God in our image.

 

A crucifix frightens us because of the pain and suffering of one dying on a cross, but there‟s a far greater reason we don‟t like the crucifix: we want to deny the hard truth that it was our sin that made Jesus have to die to make atonement. The hymnals of many denominations include the seventeenth century hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus, How hast Thou Offended?” One of the verses begins, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?” The answer is given at the end of the verse: “I crucified Thee.”

 

So many resent having to admit they‟re sinners, that they cannot save themselves, and that the Christ Who died in their place and for their sins has a claim on their lives. He demands to be Savior and Lord, not that cute baby Who asks nothing. This (and added to it some bigotry towards things we think are “Catholic”) is probably more the real reason many do not like the crucifix, not some ill-thought- through idea of “I don‟t worship a dead Christ.” Let‟s be honest.

 

So What Was That Priest’s Point?

 

So what was the point of that priest who dared to place a crucifix in the manger on Christmas Eve? To bring home graphically to all who looked that at Christmas we do not center on sentimentality but on Jesus, and when we center on Jesus we focus on everything in His life including His atoning death.

 

When the Wise Men came, among their gifts was myrrh, a item used in embalming the dead (see Matthew 2:11). Christs atoning death on the cross was not an accident. It was one of the reasons He came. This baby came to do a lot of things. One of them was to die. This Christmas — Ill admit it — Ill get sentimental about “The Baby Jesus” — and thats okay — but Ill also thank that Baby Jesus for dying for my sins. God the Father sent Him to be born, live, teach, work miracles, model godly life and to die for my sins. +

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