A Christmas Day meditation on the fullness of the empty manger

READINGS: The Nativity as recounted by Luke 2:1-21

Luke 17: 20-21. A saying of Jesus:

Jesus said "The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst."

From Questioning Assumptions: Rethinking the Philosophy of Religion (Fortress Press, 2011) by Tom Christenson:

If we go looking for God, we will not find her or him.
What we may find is a world self- transformed in terms of the God paradigm.
We may then see the cosmos in awe and wonder, and see the world and our days in it as a gift received with thanksgiving.
We may see other humans and as our brothers and sisters.
We may see the ordinary as deep with meaning.
We may behold ourselves as essentially connected.
We may see every life as redeemable.
We may find strength and hope in the midst of pain and fear.
We may find every gift increased by sharing. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) in Philosophical Investigations (Routledge, 1953)

§15. A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.

Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) in Religious Experience and Scientific Method, (Macmillan, 1926, p. 9).

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist.

Lost Christmas by R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) from Young and Old (1972)

He is alone, it is Christmas.
Up the hill go three trees, the three kings.
There is a star also
Over the dark manger. But where is the Child?

Pity him. He has come far
Like the trees, matching their patience
With his. But the mind was before
Him on the long road.  The manger is empty.

—o0o—

PREAMBLE

For many years I’ve been goaded by R. S. Thomas’ poem “Lost Christmas” (perhaps slightly bullied would be a better description of how it felt) into making various attempts to find ways by which I might continue to use my mind yet still arrive on Christmas Day and find the manger full and, thus, avoid Thomas’ withering pity. However, whatever power there has been in some of the things I have written for you over the years about what might fill the manger, in these skeptical times the manger — though it can, of course, always be filled “poetically” or “metaphorically” — in truth always remains empty and on Christmas Morn there is never to found before us an actual Christ-child in an actual manger. All this caused me to wonder what would happen were I frankly to acknowledge this fact? Might it not help some new creative, life- and meaning-affirming possibility to emerge?  

This address is a meditation on what happened to me when I frankly acknowledged the emptiness of the manger and I simply offer up my words to you here as food for further thought. As always this is simply a record of my footprints up the hill of Christmas Day; it is most certainly not a blueprint which I am claiming you, too, must follow.

—o0o—
ADDRESS 
A Christmas Day Meditation on the fullness of the empty manger

It was Wittgenstein who memorably helped us see how we are always-already shaped, constrained and enabled by inherited world views which in often invisible ways help show up the world and it’s meaning to us in certain ways but not others. As he summed this insight up: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (PI §115). 

Although it is increasingly becoming less true than it once was, at this time of year a picture which still holds some of us captive and repeats itself inexorably is that of the Christ-child of ancient legend, incarnate God-with-us, Emmanuel, asleep in a manger. As an old popular song might have put it, for us manger and Christ-child go together like love and marriage and a horse and carriage. It’s hard, very hard, to get outside this picture.

But what would happen — or might happen — were I, at least for a moment, able to free myself from captivity to this traditional picture and consider the baby and the manger apart from each other? What new picture of the meaning of Christmas might emerge from this separation that was more relevant, captivating and enabling for this, skeptical, scientific age than the traditional Christian one?

Naturally, when one first separates child from manger it is almost overwhelmingly tempting to concentrate solely on the child because it seems obvious that the beautiful baby must surely trump the manger in terms of its potential religious significance to us. It is certainly the way most folk have gone in our own liberal circles and our second hymn today, by the Unitarian minister and writer John Andrew Story, is a good example of this approach at work (the full text of this hymn can be found at the end of this post). Notice that the manger is in the hymn nothing more than an incidental, picturesque stage prop to what is felt to be the proper focus of a Unitarian Christmas, i.e. the foregrounded, universal child.

But is the baby (as either representing the universal human child Unitarians tend to celebrate or the singular divine Christ-child of traditional Christian belief) necessarily the proper or appropriate religious focus of Christmas? Might not the picture of the child alone also be seen to be holding us captive? Daft though it may at first sound, might it not a legitimate and appropriate focus of Christmas be the empty manger? Well, one can only hope to find this out if, for a moment, one is willing to risk gently setting aside the child and to concentrate on the empty manger.

Of course, for a traditionalist like the Welsh poet and Anglican priest R. S. Thomas this is pure folly because in his world-view the solitary empty manger is a pejoratively negative image, a clear indication of a lack of religious substance, meaning and worth; for the manger to mean anything positive for him it must be filled — and filled with the Christ-child. Consequently, someone like me who is suggesting we might be able to go up the hill on Christmas Day with our minds before us actively to contemplate an empty manger is someone to be pitied, not encouraged.

But what if, when contemplated in a certain way, the empty manger is able to be transformed into a symbol of something much more mysterious, awesome, primordial, important, fulfilling, life-giving and meaning-sustaining than even the incarnate God-with-us, Emmanuel, the Christ-child of legend?

However, we struggle to entertain such a thought because our culture has for millennia been obsessed with presencing the divine mystery. It has done this by attempting to make the ground of our world (often named by us as “God”) visible and, therefore, accessible to us in obvious, tangible ways as a supernatural being — but, note, as a being nonetheless. Incarnate deity in the form of the Christ-child is for our culture perhaps the most popular example of this attempt to presence the divine. But a huge, utterly insoluble problem arises whenever one tries to presence the ground of the world and make it visible and we see this most clearly when we consider the well-known example of the Rubin Vase.

The Rubin Vase
As you can see on your order of service the picture can be perceived as either a white vase on a black ground or two black faces on a white ground. Notice that it is a condition of any object being seen at all (vase, face or anything else) that something else furnishes for it a ground. To try to presence that ground itself as some determinate figure (which in the case of the example before you can certainly do) is necessarily to make something else the ground and it always remains impossible to see both the faces and the vase at the same time. But this is exactly what Christianity metaphysics has wanted to do with the child in the manger — it wants to show us simultaneously both a determinate figure, the baby child, and what it thinks is the ground of humanity — i.e. God. But if you can presence God as a determinate figure then that God simply cannot be the ground because something else has instantaneously become the ground (cf. James C. Edwards in "The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism", Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, p.179).

The point about the kind of mysterious, awesome, primordial, important, life-giving and meaning-sustaining ground I am trying to gesture towards today (and this is all late Heidegger by the way) is that it simply can never be presenced and, as Jesus reminded us, it can never be observed, pointed to or talked about except as something that can never be observed, pointed to or talked about. To repeat: were you able to presence it then, in the same instance, it would no longer be the ground and you would be forced to look again for another ground and so on ad infinitum. I hope you can see that this is a fool’s errand, one that can never be completed and, therefore, best avoided.

However, this point not withstanding, what might happen were we able to allow the empty manger to become a placeholder for this mysterious, awesome, primordial, important, life-giving and meaning-sustaining ground, this “Something” that is Nothing — no-thing — this “Something” which can never be presenced itself but which always-already allows the world to come into being and in which all things become present; this “Something” that allows for there to be something not nothing. (Heidegger would come to call this "die Lichtung" — "the clearing". Cf. Thomas Sheehan's recent excellent short essay "What after all was Heidegger about?")

As the great Unitarian religious naturalist theologian Henry Nelson Wieman (1884-1975) said back in 1926, for him

Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that human life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however, unknown, does certainly exist ("Religious Experience and Scientific Method", Macmillan, 1926, p. 9).

So might not the empty manger become for us a placeholder for this “Something” that cannot be doubted, this “Something” that is a nothing, no-thing, which can never be presenced in and of itself but which is always-already allowing all things to be?

Now, with this insight in place, let’s put the baby gently back in to the manger. As we do this I hope you can see that the picture now before us is subtly changed from the traditional one. Now it is no longer the child that is symbolic of the divine mystery but the manger. The manger has become the symbol of the always-already mysterious divine “Something” upon which the being of all things always-already depends, and the child, in turn, has now been restored to its rightful place as both a symbol of humanity and, by extension, all natural things as entities miraculously gifted with life and supported in existence.

Maybe my words today are all but incomprehensible to many of you but one day, perhaps, for some of us it will be possible joyously to climb the hill on Christmas Day to celebrate and honour, not so much the Christ-child (though we will always be filled with celebratory joy at the sight of a new born child) but, to coin a phrase, the empty Christ-manger — that mysterious ineffable “Something”, that "nothing", that "no-thing" through which we and all things are always-already supported in our being just as a baby child is supported in a manger.

A very happy Christmas to you all.

—o0o— 

A Christmas Hymn 
by John Andrew Storey (1935-1997) 

Around the crib all peoples throng
In honour of the Christ-child's birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

But not alone on Christmas morn
Was God made one with humankind:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.

This Christmastide let us rejoice
And celebrate our human worth,
Proclaiming with united voice
The miracle of every birth.

Round every crib all people throng
To honour God in each new birth,
And raise again the ancient song:
'Goodwill to all, and peace on earth.'

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