My birth in you is your awakening to grandeur. Welcome me not into a manger, but into the altar to holiness, where holiness abides in perfect peace (T-15.III.9:5-6).
The above passage comes from a section in which the Course is discussing Christmas and telling us how to celebrate it. But what does this passage mean—"Welcome me not into a manger, but into the altar to holiness"? For years I liked this line, but mostly because it sounded good—I wasn't quite sure what it meant. I finally came to the conclusion that, like great poetry, these few words contain a remarkable wealth of meaning.
To begin with, how is it that we welcome Jesus into a manger? It seemed to me that being welcomed into a manger was something that happened to him a very long time ago. I wasn't the one who put him there in that mangy place. So my first reaction was, "Why are you telling me to not put you in a manger? Shouldn't you take that up with your mom?"
Then I realized that, in fact, I do welcome him into a manger. Every year I put out a full-size wooden manger with real hay, and I stick a soft little baby Jesus doll into it. And there it sits about ten feet from the tree: The Alternative, my silent protest against all the garish Christmas hoopla, a mute summons to historical purity. At this same time of year I find myself constantly rescuing another baby Jesus—a little plastic one—that belongs to another Nativity set. This one gets lifted from his manger by the giant hands of my kids, played with alongside Darth Vader and Batman (one wonders what special powers baby Jesus has), and left on the floor to be trampled. As a result, he now lies in the manger, smiling at the sky and giving his open-armed gesture of universal welcome—with only one arm.
In other words, I finally realized that this passage is talking about Nativity scenes! That is precisely how we welcome Jesus into a manger, isn't it? "Welcome me not into a manger" means "Welcome me not into your Nativity scenes." Yet he can't be saying, "Throw away your Nativity scenes; they are tools of Satan." He must be using those scenes as a symbol for how we celebrate Christmas, and especially for how we welcome him, for what place we give him in our lives.
What, then, does it mean if a manger is what we really welcome him into, if that is where we mentally put him in our lives? Let's look at the manger scene. First, it places Jesus in the body of a helpless infant. Second, it places that little body in a wooden trough. Third, the helpless body and trough are situated far outside of us, in a far-off country. Fourth, the scene of body, manger and country are all in a distant past, far removed from our present day. Fifth, everyone in the scene is worshipping this little infant who is outside of them. Sixth, this tiny, distant, ancient scene is trotted out once a year and then put away.
If this, then, is where we mentally place Jesus, then we have confined him to a tiny, shabby place, far away in time and space. We trot his little body out once a year, at which time (in some particularly sacrilegious homes) it may spend a while on the floor, get kicked around and stepped on, and maybe lose a limb or two. Then we put it in a box until next Christmas. During that brief holiday season, we are worshipping a baby who is so small, so helpless and so far outside of us that we can be sure nothing much is going to happen to us. We can have warm feelings about him without worrying that he will invade our lives. He is safely removed, conveniently powerless and comfortably irrelevant. Now that we have him safely penned in, let's break out some more eggnog!
In contrast to welcoming him into a manger, what does our passage really ask us to do? It asks us to welcome him "into the altar to holiness, where holiness abides in perfect peace." Notice the stark contrast with the manger image. To fully appreciate this contrast, let's go down the same six-item list from above.
First, we are welcoming in no tiny, helpless infant, but the one who speaks in this passage: the resurrected Jesus, a timeless, spaceless spirit who is at one with God and in charge of the entire world's salvation. Unlike that tiny infant who needed protection from the elements and from the soldiers of King Herod, this spirit is at the mercy of nothing in this world. He sees right through all its illusions. He overcame the final power in this world—death—and has been working ever since to overturn the basic foundations upon which this world is built. In terms of our ego's status quo, this is no safe figure to welcome in.
Second, we are welcoming him not into a feeding trough but into the altar to holiness—quite a contrast. What is the altar to holiness? An altar is a raised structure on which are performed acts of devotion, sacrifice and worship toward a deity. In the Course, the term signifies the place in our mind that is totally devoted to God. "Altar to holiness," then, means that there is a quiet, sacred place in our mind that is dedicated purely to holiness, and where that "holiness abides" not in wishy-washy uncertainty, but "in perfect peace."
Third, therefore, we are not welcoming him into some scene in a far-off country, comfortably removed from us. We are welcoming him into a deep place inside of us, a place so deep that it lies beneath our confident facade, beneath our secret fears, beneath our ancient rage, and even beneath our belief in time and space. We are welcoming him into a heart so inward, so central, that we do not even know it is there. As Jesus says elsewhere about Christmas:
The sign of Christmas is a star, a light in darkness. See it not outside yourself, but shining in the Heaven within… (T-15.XI.2:1-2).
Fourth, of course, this is meant to happen now. It is not some past event that we can commemorate from a safe distance. "It is in your power to make this [Christmas] season holy, for it is in your power to make the time of Christ be now" (T-15.X.4:1). This phrase, "the time of Christ," is interesting because it refers to both Christmas and the holy instant. It means that in the holy instant we experience the essence of what the first Christmas really was. In that instant Jesus is born in us today. And we enter that instant not by celebrating the past, but by temporarily forgetting it and being only in the present.
Fifth, this is not about worshipping some child outside of us and placing frankincense and myrrh at its feet. It is not really about the child's greatness, but about our own. It is about awakening to that altar within us and rediscovering our own holiness. My guess is that this inner awakening is exactly what happened to the original characters that were clustered around the manger (if indeed there was a manger). But this is not what happens to us as we gather round our Nativity scenes and sing "Jingle Bells." We need to experience his birth within us, as the line right before our manger/altar line says: "My birth in you is your awakening to grandeur." Jesus is not here to get our accolades. He is here to play midwife to our awakening. As he enters our minds, everything he is, we become. As he is born in us, the universal Christ is born into this world once more and opens His eyes as us.
Sixth, this is clearly not the kind of thing one can put in a box and bring out once a year. It is too personal, too central, too total. Once he enters that altar, he is there to stay, even if at times we may forget. The section, "I Need Do Nothing," speaks of this:
He [in this case, the Holy Spirit] will remain when you forget, and the body's activities return to occupy your conscious mind. Yet there will always be this place of rest to which you can return. And you will be more aware of this quiet center of the storm than all its raging activity (T-18.VII.7:9-8:2).
Once we welcome him into our "altar to holiness, where holiness abides in perfect peace," he becomes our home base, our quiet center of the storm. His calm becomes that place of rest to which we always can return. His love becomes the warm hearth which renews our strength in the midst of all our labors in a cold, hard world. His wakefulness becomes the seed which blossoms into the realization of our own divinity. Now we can see the wisdom of welcoming him "not into a manger, but into the altar to holiness." What one-armed, plastic baby could give us anything that could remotely compare with this?