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Christmas decorations went up especially early this year, even among some who are normally scrupulous about keeping the church’s liturgical seasons.

No wonder. Times are tough. People need something to lift our spirits and give us hope.

Lights and garland and baubles delight our senses. And they also serve as reminders. There is an exhilarating, life-giving energy in the depths of the life we actually live. Most days, we’re too busy or exhausted or worried or anxious to sense it.

You see, God dwells with us. Right here in our midst. That’s what Jesus’s birth shows us.

Whether plain or thrilling, placid or chaotic, well-ordered or messy, the life we actually live is where God embraces us with infinite, unrelenting love.

No decoration helps us see this more clearly than nativity scenes. They can help us to look into the manger. And I mean really look.

You may already know that St. Francis fashioned the very first nativity scene in 1223. He filled a feed trough with straw and placed it in a cave along with an ox and a donkey. He intended it as an interactive part of his Christmas sermon.

As Francis preached, the congregation was to look into the manger. He hoped that they would look not only with their physical eyes, but with the eyes of their heart.

That they would feel for themselves the love that restores battered souls, heals wounded bodies, mends shattered relationships, and liberates us from anything that holds us captive.

Francis believed that, when we look into the manger, we discover who God really is and who we most truly are. I do, too.

So, I urge you to look into the manger. Feel it for yourself. No one else can do it for you.

The manger shows us that God is love. All-embracing, unflinching, life-giving, life-restoring, soul-mending love. And that love is always personal.

God loves you. Just as you are. No matter what circumstances you find yourself in. God loves me, and loves everybody, in exactly the same way.

Now the funny thing about feeling that kind of love for ourselves—I mean knowing it right down to our marrow—is that we begin to sense it as our life’s calling. The call to embody and to share that kind of love—in our own meager and imperfect way—in every corner of our life.

That’s a tall order. It means loving everybody. Even and especially the ones we’ve kept at arm’s length.

We’re different. We’re black and white, gay and straight, rural and urban, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be competing tribes. Us versus them.

The manger shows us that there is no us and them. There’s just us. The children of God.

Loving God means working toward seeing everybody—in all their breathtaking otherness and bewildering uniqueness—as children of God just like us.

When we look into the manger, this is what we see: Love is our deepest longing, our greatest challenge, and the calling that makes life worth living.

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