Approaching the manger

It feels a little early to be writing about Advent. It’s a week past Thanksgiving but — thanks to the funny gap in the calendar this year between that moveable feast and the end of the month — Christmas seems like it’s still far away. And yet: we will put up a Christmas tree Saturday, Holiday Pops starts next week… and Sunday is Manger Sunday at Hancock Church.

There are so many things about joining a new church family that feel like learning to speak a foreign language. I remember listening to the pastors talk about Manger Sunday in our first full year of attendance, over ten years ago, and wondering what all the fuss was about. “Manger Sunday” seemed like another one of those magical words or phrases. You know the ones, if you’ve been in a church any time in the past forty years. The words that someone says, and you just know they’re freighted with all sorts of history and baggage, and that there are probably perfectly good English synonyms for them but that the preacher won’t ever use them. (“Covenant” and “stewardship,” for me, are in danger of being some of those words. It’s not just in churches, either; at my kids’ schools, I hear an awful lot of “growth mindset” uttered in much the same hushed tones as “covenant.” Or “lift up our joys.”)

So, Manger Sunday. I thought, It’s a bazaar. Or, It’s … stewardship? No, we did that already. Is it mission work? Well, kind of. What is it?

Manger Sunday has been observed in this way, for the past 149 years, at Hancock Church in Lexington: You bring an item that someone less fortunate than you might need—warm clothes, a coat, socks, mittens, gift cards, toys, books games—and you get up with the whole rest of the congregation, from four year olds to 94 year olds, and you walk down the aisle and around the pews while singing Christmas carols and you bring your gift and you add it to the pile in the unlovely but sturdy twelve foot by four foot by three foot wooden “manger.” By the end of the procession, which lasts for about six hymns (each sung with all the verses), the manger is so full that there are secondary and tertiary and quaternary piles all around it on the floor. The gifts are given to families in need through the City Mission Christmas Shop

It sounds so simple. It really is simple. But it makes a powerful impact. In 2017 City Mission, through Hancock and other churches, distributed 5,000 gifts to families through their partner agencies. That’s 5,000 happier Christmases right there.

And the impact doesn’t stop there; in fact, I’m not sure who makes out better, the recipient or the giver. There’s a world of difference between supporting “charity” by check and credit card, and going shopping for something that someone—granted, someone you’ll probably never know, but some one—will wear to keep warm, or find joy in playing with during an otherwise bleak winter, and taking it with your own hands and carrying it down the aisle. All, mind you, while singing about God’s magnificent leap of faith in our worthiness to receive his gift to us.

I don’t know what being a Christian means. But sometimes I feel like Manger Sunday is a pretty good answer.

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