The empty manger is a promise
By Jessica Michele Conzen
Growing up, Christmas Eve was always a celebratory and festive day. My sister and I would help Oma, my grandmother, pick out and decorate the Christmas tree. We’d mill around the kitchen, hindering more than contributing to Christmas Eve dinner, secretly hoping to eat the marzipan stolen, a German bread filled with nuts, raisins and almond paste, as an appetizer rather than a dessert.
As night approached, we’d sing O Tannebaum as we watched the candlelight flicker on the silver tinsel that decorated the tree. Afterward, my sister and I were banished to the back bedroom where we would play until we heard sleigh bells, the signal that Santa had visited. That 15 or 20 minute wait felt like an eternity! When we heard the jingling bells we were free to leave the room and open the beautifully wrapped gifts that had appeared.
But the thing I most remember about this day is my Oma’s nativity set. It occupied center stage on the coffee table, surrounded by pine branches, garland and candles. While Mary, Joseph and the wise men made their appearance early in the month, Jesus’ manger remained unoccupied until December 24.
As kids, my sister and I always chuckled at Jesus’ absence. We knew the story. We knew he belonged in the manger. It wasn’t a secret. Why delay putting him in his designated spot?
However, as an adult, I now recognize that my Oma knew something we had yet to discover. What we failed to comprehend, but what Oma so profoundly understood, was the meaning of this night—the magnitude of God’s presence in human form and the significance of God coming to his people.
God dwells with us
The Gospel of John starts with a mini-introduction to Jesus. As part of this introductory biography, we’re told that the Word, who was God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory…” (John 1:14, emphasis added). What is fascinating about this verse are the italicized words.
When it comes to communicating, we know that words matter. Words have significant meaning and because of this we choose them carefully. Here we see John, the author, doing the same.
The Greek word for “dwelling” is the verb sk?no?, which means “to tent” or “to tabernacle.” Using this definition, we can say that God “pitched his tent among us,” that he “tabernacled with us” or that he “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). While this word choice may seem a bit odd to us, John intentionally used it to make a statement about what God was doing and who he was declaring himself to be in the person of Jesus.
To understand what John is communicating, we first need to know the significance of this word and the imagery associated with it in the Old Testament. The words “tent of meeting” and “tabernacle” appear in the book of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers and are often used interchangeably.
In Exodus, after God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and as they began their 40-year wilderness trek, he instructed Moses to construct a mishkän, a dwelling place. This dwelling place was the tabernacle. It was the physical location where God met his people and served as a portable worship and sacrifice center for the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings.
While the tabernacle was under construction, Moses pitched the tent of meeting, an interim meeting place that was later absorbed into the tabernacle. It was here, and in the tabernacle, that God visited with Moses and by extension the Israelites. While the actual, physical structure was important (11 of the 40 chapters in Exodus are devoted to the tabernacle’s construction), it’s what filled this space—God’s presence, God’s glory—which was most significant.
Encountering the divine
God’s presence and glory is often identified by the shekinah. Essentially, God’s presence and God’s glory equals shekinah. We see the shekinah in the cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt, that descended upon Mount Sinai when delivering the covenant and that took up residence in the tent of meeting and the tabernacle.
The cloud signaled God’s visit and was proof of God’s promise to dwell with his people. When “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34), Moses and the Israelites waited expectantly at a distance, anticipating this encounter with the divine. In this moment, God’s people beheld his glory; they witnessed God’s presence.
In these divine visitations, God revealed his desire for relationship, nearness and intimacy. In this dwelling place, Israel discovered that God was not far off, distant or uninterested in their lives. Rather, God’s proximity was evidence of his desire to interact with and lovingly guide them. This closeness, this relationship, was what it meant for God “to tent” or “tabernacle” with his people.
Anticipating God’s presence
John draws upon this imagery in verse 14 of his Gospel. Using this same terminology, John communicated that once again God was dwelling with his people. However, this time, he was no longer tied to a physical structure but was made visible in the person of Jesus. God was tabernacling with us but in a very different way.
Rather than a grand tabernacle, God’s dwelling place was a human being. Rather than appearing in a cloud, God’s glory, God’s presence, the shekinah now appeared in Jesus. This was the height of God’s self-revelation. Jesus was God’s ultimate expression of his desire to relate to and exist beside his people. Jesus was the new meeting place.
This is what my Oma so profoundly understood. This is what she saw in the empty manger and why she held off placing Jesus in his assigned spot.
Just as Moses and the Israelites waited expectantly for God’s presence to fill the tabernacle, Oma waited expectantly for God’s presence to fill the manger. For her, the manger was a promise of something to come. It wasn’t the physical space—the manger itself—that was important. Rather, it was the one who would occupy it on that sacred night that mattered most.
She understood that God was reenacting his tabernacle revelation but now in human form. God’s promise to dwell with his people would be realized in the form of a babe and in the life of Jesus. His nearness would be made evident, and his desire to be known and to know his people would manifest in the flesh.
Waiting with hope
Looking back, I can see the expectation in Oma’s eyes when she eventually placed Jesus in the manger. Like Moses and the Israelites, she beheld God’s glory, but now, like John, she recognized God’s glory in Jesus. She anticipated this moment all month long. She waited in hope, knowing that God was coming to his people and that this would be the greatest moment of his interaction in the world.
Something my sister and I once thought humorous is now a tradition I’ve adopted. I not only construct my nativity set with my Oma’s care and concern, but I leave the manger empty until December 24. While I do this in memory of Oma, more importantly, I do it as a reminder of the anticipation we should all have.
The empty manger symbolizes what awaits. It represents our eagerness for God to fulfill his promise to dwell with us. This Christmas season, I encourage all of us to wait with just as much anticipation as my Oma. I pray we too behold God’s glory in Jesus, making time to ponder its game-changing significance. May we await this divine visitation with hope, expectation and faith.
Jessica Michele Conzen is a Fresno Pacific University adjunct faculty member teaching in biblical studies and early childhood development. She is a 2013 graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary with a master’s degree in theology. She blogs at musingsofatheologist.wordpress.com.