The following is modified from a homily written for the 4th Sunday of Advent by Fr. Michael McGourty, Pastor of St. Peter's Parish, Toronto.
The Nativity Scene is one of the most beloved symbols in Christianity. Before the celebration of Jesus' birth on Christmas Day, the Nativity or empty Manger proclaims the anticipation of a people who await the coming of God's love in their midst. After the celebration of Christ's birth, when the baby Jesus is placed in the Manger, the Nativity scene proclaims the presence of a loving God with His people. The birth of Christ into the poverty of the Manger announces boldly the extent to which God goes to show us His love for every single person. He is truly God with us— or as the scriptures call Him, Emmanuel. Within the context of this Year of Mercy the Manger takes on the significance as that place which can be called no other than The Cradle of God's Mercy. There is only one sign more powerful for Christians and that is the sign of the Cross, which within the context of this year must be called the Throne of God's Mercy.
There are so many ways that God could have arranged to have His Son born among us. If God thought in human ways, he might have waited until the twenty-first century for His Son to have been born. All that would be necessary for Him to get the message out would be to set up a Facebook page. Even two thousand years ago, it would have been much easier if He had simply been born the son of a Roman Emperor. In this way, the many soldiers of the Roman Army could have simply gone out to the corners of the world to announce that God's Son had been born and all should worship Him.
And yet God does things so incredibly differently! As we hear proclaimed in the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Micah, God chooses one of the most insignificant places in Israel for His Son to be born. The angel announces to a teenage girl, in a male dominated society, that she will be the Mother of God. As a sign of the truth of this message from the angel, Mary is told that her elderly cousin Elizabeth will have a child. Elizabeth also represents someone else who was regarded as having little value in this society. She has been unable to conceive and in her old age is seen as having small worth. Herod the King of Israel will search for the child and send the Wise Men from the East to look for Him, but it is an unborn child, John the Baptist, who will first recognize Christ and announce His presence to the world.
It is the place of Christ's birth, however, which most beautifully tells of how profound God's love for each person truly is. Jesus, the Son of God and Creator of the universe, is born in a barn among animals to show us that no matter who we are, He wishes to come to us. Had he been born into a palace or as the Son of some great emperor, how many of us would feel that we could invite Him to live with us. His poverty proclaims to men and women who live on the streets of cities that they are loved by God. To all the boys and girls in the world playing in the muck of refugee camps around the world, Jesus announces that He is with them. The Manger is the Cradle of God's Mercy. Here, Jesus, who Pope Francis repeatedly calls the Face of the Father's Mercy is born and makes manifest the Love of God for all people.
This week, the Manger which awaits the birth of Christ presents an invitation to all of us to prepare our own hearts to receive Christ with the joy and confidence that He loves us so much He will joyfully come to every heart that welcomes Him. In this Year of Mercy, these last days of Advent are a wonderful time for healing. All who believe that they do not deserve God's love are invited to contemplate before the empty Manger that the only thing that is preventing God from entering our hearts is our lack of faith in His love. Mary provides the most beautiful example of a Christian who has allowed God to come to her. By giving our own "yes" to God, we are to allow His presence to radiate in our lives in the same way that Mary does. We can give Christ a body to dwell in by making the words of our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews our own and assenting to the words: "I have come to do your will."
What is claimed to be the authentic Manger of Jesus can be visited in the Church of Mary Major in Rome. There is nothing special about this poor wooden box from which animals once ate. There is a prayer that people who visit the Basilica are invited to say as they kneel before the Manger. The prayer speaks about how the wooden Manger points to the wooden Cross on which Christ will make the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. The Cross is the ultimate sign of God's mercy and for that reason I would call it the Throne of God's Mercy. The Manger and the Cross tell us that Jesus came into the world with nothing and left it with nothing of material value. Jesus has come among us to announce God's unconditional love for all people. He has come to be the Face of the Father's Mercy.
In these last few days that remain to prepare for Christ's coming among us, let us prepare our own hearts so that they may be Cradles for God's Mercy to be born in us. In doing so, may we bring Him through our own acts of charity to all who need an expression of God's love and mercy this Christmas.