Something struck me unexpectedly while meditating on Christmas Eve at the cathedral crèche. Near midnight, at the interlude between Lessons and Carols and the start of Mass, I had knelt down and just finished incensing the Nativity scene when I was startled by something: the manger seemed so disproportionately large. So outsized, in fact, that Jesus was almost lost in the hay.

I looked around at the other figures. None of them was so mis-sized or ill-arranged. Everything was as it should be. Why did the manger seem so strange? Oddly, Jesus certainly stood out, though not in the way in which I might have expected.

Then it hit me: why should Jesus not be present in exactly this way? Why would he and his Holy Family want to deprive of their livelihood the beasts who had warmed them so well? The animals would never have been able to feed had they not enough space to get their sizable heads into the tray. A just-born child would surely have been dwarfed by the immensity of any self-respecting manger. It dawned on me that it is no doubt the artisans who, by their famous license, have fattened up baby Jesus and shrunken his crib to “steal the show” for Jesus — and maybe their masterpiece — as Jesus himself would never have intended.

It is understandable, to be fair, that sculptors and painters, historically often very devout Christians, would want to focus on the theological centricity of the Christ-child, as the faith leads believers, and even stars beckon other truth-seeking inquirers. Jesus is the Incarnate Word, all that God is, contained now in human flesh. The psalmist praises God for the brilliant majesty of a commanding presence, above and beyond all that heaven and earth could contain, or darkness overcome. What artist’s craft would diminish such awe? “Born a child and yet a king,” as an Advent carol chants. And yet…

Yes, in faith we affirm that Jesus was as much true God and true Man at his first coming as he was on the day he rose and will be at the end of time in his second coming in glory. That is an awe and majesty that is, in its humble littleness, as mysterious and incomprehensible at the moment of his conception as in its eternal radiance, finally to be revealed to beholders at the end of time. In the history of world religions, no other vision dares approach this. How highly the Word’s condescension into our time has elevated humanity into God’s eternity!

Hyperbole — of song and poetry and other creative display — might come naturally to all expressions giving praise to God. Scripture is full of such outbursts as King David, for example, abandons himself wildly in dance before the Ark of the Covenant, God’s presence, and even John, imitating his spiritual forebear, leaps before his unborn King while still in his own mother’s womb, at the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.

With the exception of that special theophany on Mount Tabor, the Transfiguration — which, as the voice from heaven announces, is an extraordinary intervention by the Father — every word and action of Jesus reveals an intent to humble himself and even to veil his divine countenance. Every moment of the Jesus’ life was a constant humiliation, as one theologian has observed.

Suddenly it became clear to me as I meditated, that the smallness of that newborn child, lost in the hay of the manager, almost shoved to the side, is exactly how the Word became incarnate and was to live in this world. Jesus, without ever sinning himself, so bonded himself with us, descending into the pits of our human experience, so that no person, having sunk to the depth of sin and grief, pain and despair, could say certainly that God was not somehow present there.

Maybe this is really what Christmas is all about or, better said, “little” Christmas. The term “Little Christmas” is, historically, a reference to the old tradition in which the birth of Christ was observed on January 6. Now it is the date on which we celebrate the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi. In these days after “big” Christmas, however, as we abruptly return to “normal” — whatever that may be — it makes sense to give ourselves permission to prolong our Christmas commemoration.

The Church actually uses the liturgical devise of an Octave — eight days — to extend Christmas Day for a long week. Each day at Mass during this period, we pray the Gloria and, at the Office of Readings, the Te Deum, a great hymn of praise recited on Sunday’s. The “twelve days of Christmas,” spanning the time from Christmas to the Epiphany, invites a long meditation on the meaning of the Nativity, even as parodied in song and satire to signify a bizarre glut of gift-giving. Perhaps there is an intuition here that Christmas is not in the glitter and excess of wanton spending and exhaustive merry-making. The true meaning of Christmas is welcoming a God into our lives who becomes so small as to be able to enter every person’s heart and fill it with a joy and a love that alone can make us truly human.

To be humanized we must become divinized. What other faith or fancy lifts the human race up so highly, one person at a time? It is the humble reality of the child of Bethlehem, born as animals looked on, living in their warmth, lying where they eat, and inviting the lowliest of humanity — any with a humbled shepherd’s heart — to behold and see so great a Mystery who is God enough to become so frailly human.

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