How can we let the manger be both empty and full, respecting them both, being still in their presence, and letting them speak in their own ways?

Christs Pieces opposite the Church
Throughout Advent I have been suggesting to you that we may take John the Baptist to have been encouraging his hearers to prepare and develop in the wilderness some kind of patient, disciplined practice of letting-go that, in an actively receptive way could create a clearing so that something new could enter the world.

In the Christian tradition this something new — this new being, or better, new way of being — that comes into our world came to celebrated in the myth of “the Christ-child”.

READING: Luke 2:1-20

As I said last week we feel today no pressing need to take this myth literally because we have come to feel the gift of the “Christ-child” — this new way of being — may come to us in many forms, both sacred and secular, Christian and non-Christian, and though, at times, it may come in the form of a new-born boy or girl, it may also come to us in the form of a new and creative idea, insight or, as you heard last week, in the silvery form of a fish.

I have been trying to explore the idea that this kind of gift can only come unto us in so far as we learn from an insight of the philosopher Henry Bugbee found in his “Inward Morning: A Philosophical Exploration in Journal Form” where he writes:

“Philosophy is not a making of a home for the mind out of reality. It is more like learning to leave things be: restoration in the wilderness, here and now” (Inward Morning, p. 155).

It is important to understand that “By ‘leaving things be’” Bugbee did “not mean inaction”, rather he meant, as he clearly states, “respecting things, being still in the presence of things, letting them speak” (ibid. p. 155).

With these thoughts in mind today I’d like, gently, to round-off this Advent train of thought with a Christmas Day related one. But please remember that, as always, here, following Herbert Fingarette's example, I’m only offering you footprints to follow up if you are so minded, I am not offering any blueprints!

Over the years I’ve explored many expressions of the gift of the “Christ-child” in our culture and, today, I want to return to two of them, to take them together to see what they might say to us.

The first expression is R. S. Thomas’ poem of 1972 “Lost Christmas” in which he feels we should feel pity for the man who, travelling with his mind before him, finds the manger empty.

READING: Lost Christmas

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.

The second expression is "The Nativity at Night”, an Early Netherlandish painting of about 1490 by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. (See picture on right, click on it to enlarge). Geertgen shows us the manger filled with a very present and shining “Christ-child”. Geertgen painted this with an empty space in the foreground so we, too, can join the assembled throng.

Through them both I want to ask a question:

How can we let the manger be both empty and full, respecting them both, being still in their presence, and letting them speak in their own ways?


The important scientific and historical critical studies of the nineteenth, twentieth and now early twenty-first centuries have, through careful, thoughtful, mind-led research, been able to show us that it is vanishingly unlikely the Christmas stories are historically true accounts. In Bethlehem there almost certainly were no shepherds, no angels, no Magi, there was no star nor a manger in a cattle shed, and the human child we know as Jesus was not born in either that place or manner. R. S. Thomas, an Anglican priest, perhaps reacting to this state of affairs, pities the man whose mind went before him and who, thus, finds the manger empty. But I strongly suggest, as I did last year, that letting all these things go and, in so doing, emptying the manger is good, valuable and very necessary because truth is important. We know deep in our bones that “the truth shall make us free” — something as we know Jesus felt too.

From where I stand it seems clear that good scholarship helps us respect the events of history and the facts and laws of the natural world, it allows us to stand still in their presence and let them speak. Good scholarship  has helped free us from many unhelpful illusions and so, consequently, I think the empty manger should not be mourned but celebrated and savoured.

As for Geertgen tot Sint Jans, well, he lived in a pre-critical age that had little or no doubt the nativity stories were true and, because of this, he was able to gift us his wonder-full and powerful devotional painting. As someone who, as I have already intimated, has no choice but to view his painting as an imaginative fiction I find that, every year, I am drawn to it and cannot but help look upon it with glad wonder. I know I would be sad beyond measure were I to lose from my world the nativity stories and depictions inspired by it like that of Geertgen’s. I want to respect the nativity stories and this painting, to be still in their presence and to let them speak too. It seems to me that the fact that we can stand before a full manger on Christmas morn like this should also be celebrated and savoured.

So is the manger empty or full?

Well, today, I want to answer that, when properly understood, I think we can understand that the manger is always empty; the manger is never empty.

Now, I realise that this might sound as if I want to have my Christmas cake and to eat it but I am reminded here of something my friend who died earlier this year, the philosopher Jonathan Harrison, once said that wanting this . . .

“. . . is not an unintelligent thing to do. . . . And the trouble with wanting to have one’s cake and eat it is not so much that it is wrong as that it looks impossible. If a way could be found of having both, what sensible man would refuse to take it?” (God, Freedom and Immortality, Ashgate, 1999, p.687).

I think a non-grasping way can be found of having both and, being at least intermittently a sensible man, I want to show how one might have one’s Christmas cake and eat it, not so much by “taking it” but rather by “letting it” or “allowing it” to become possible.

We may let this paradoxical possibility emerge through the help of a well-known story about a Buddhist scholar and a Zen Master.

The scholar was exceptionally well-versed in all aspects of Buddhist thought but, for whatever reasons, he had concluded that he must study with a particular Master. When he arrived at the Master’s house, he bowed and asked him if he would teach him Zen. To make his request more persuasive the scholar immediately began to talk about his own very extensive knowledge of the Sutras and the Buddhist tradition.

The Master listened patiently whilst the scholar talked on and on but, after a while, began to make some tea. When it was ready the Master started to pour the tea into the scholar's cup. However, he did not stop when it was full but simply carried on, allowing the tea to overflow and spread rapidly across the floor towards the scholar. Seeing this the scholar leapt up and called out, "Stop! The cup’s full, you can't get anymore in!”

The master stopped pouring, looked up at the scholar, and said, “You are just like this cup, full of ideas about Buddha’s Way. You have come to me to ask if I will teach you, but your cup is full, I cannot put anything in. Before I can teach you, you must empty your cup.”

The message we may take from this today is simple, obvious and every-day. Unless the cup is emptied of old tea it cannot be filled up with new tea. It’s not that, per se, one state is bad and the other is good but, to draw on Bugbee’s image, we must learn to let full cups, empty cups, and the whole act of making and drinking tea be the kinds of things they are, respecting them, being in their presence and letting them speak, now as full, now as empty.

I hope it is relatively easy to see and understand that, perhaps, just as an empty tea cup is necessary and good so, too, is an empty manger. I hope, too, you can see that a full tea cup is necessary and good and so, too, is a full manger.

It suggests to us that full and empty tea cups with and without tea, full and empty mangers with and without Christ-childs are continually intertwining with each other in our life and culture in a veritable yin and yang dance of black and white, being and not being, full and empty. From this perspective it seems to me that Christmas is only truly lost to those who dogmatically attempt to stop this continuing dance by trying forever either to fill, or to empty, the manger.

But even this perspective doesn’t quite yet bring us to the point of being able "to have our Christmas cake and eat it." Though important, simply acknowledging the movement of the full to the empty, the full to the empty, ad infinitum, is not enough for this is to remain in the world of distinctions. Truly to have and eat our Christmas cake we need to intuit and continually live, that is to say directly experience, that there is always-already present something (though it is not, of course, a thing at all) that allows the dance of black and white, being and not being, birth and death, full and empty to occur in the first place.

In our culture we have generally given this “something” the name “God”. The late ninetieth, early twentieth-century Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) was also prepared to call this “God” but by this word he meant something different to that meant by the monotheistic traditions. He understood “God” to be “absolute nothingness”, “a reality that, while without characteristics, could serve as the foundation for everything else” (Robert E. Carter: “The Kyoto School: An Introduction, SUNY Press, 2013, p. 36). A fellow Japanese philosopher, Hishitani Keiji (1900-1990) called this "emptiness" (sūnyātā).

As Robert E. Carter, writing about Nishida, observes “in one sense, both God and (absolute) nothingness can be used interchangeably, for both refer to the highest and most encompassing reality. Yet, in a deeper sense, God may be left behind.” The reason for this is that the “God” of monotheism always has qualities and has nearly always been understood to be a kind of supreme being. “Absolute nothingness” on the other hand is “prior to all qualities and distinctions” and is that undivided something out of which even God arises (ibid. pp. 36-37). Although this is very obviously an East-Asian idea it is clear that the thirteenth-century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) came to pretty much the same conclusion when he exclaimed:

I beg of God that he makes me rid of God” and that, “as long as the soul has God, knows God and is aware of God, she is far from God” (quoted in ibid. p. 56).

It is only when through direct experience we intuit this absolute nothingness or emptiness that is always-already creatively letting cups, mangers and our whole world be and not be, be filled and emptied, that we can truly be said, at least in the way I think my friend Jonathan always hoped it might be possible to say it, to be having our cake and eating it.

This is because absolute nothingness is forever empty and forever full. As the Buddhist tradition teaches, especially in the Heart Sutra, “The world of things (the many) is also nothingness (the One), and nothingness is the world of things: Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” (quoted in ibid. p. 107). We may say that emptiness appears at one with being.

I think the manger can be for us a profound symbol of this deep reality —whether we call it God, absolute nothingness or emptiness — this is only so when we have learnt to live this insight daily in our own lives, forever experiencing it and all reality as always-already full and empty.

I’ll admit that this is, perhaps, the strangest Christmas address you've ever heard and, figuratively speaking, the strangest Christmas cake you’ll ever have been offered but, nevertheless, in time I hope you may come to enjoy eating it and, yes, having it too.

And if what I have said is a way of having both, of standing meaningful before a full and yet empty manger, what sensible modern man or woman would refuse to take it?

Happy Christmas to you all.