From the beginning of time until today, man has always desperately desired that God come to dwell among men. In fact, in the Old Testament, the Lord bowed from his starry throne to dwell among his people – first, in a tent and then in a temple.
During the period of the Exodus, in which the Israelites wandered in the desert, God was with them in a tent. Within the tent, there was the ark of the covenant, and above the ark, there were two cherubim. From the cherubim, God spoke to Moses (cf. Num 7:89); the tent was God’s dwelling place. The presence of the Lord was indicated by a cloud which always covered the tent. And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel encamped (Num 9:17). In fact, the Lord himself described the situation like this: I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling (2 Sam 7:6).
But Solomon—wanting a more stable and more noble divine presence—built a great and wonderful temple (2 Chr 2:8), even if the King admitted that heaven even highest heaven cannot contain him (2 Chr 2:6). He transferred the ark of the covenant from the tent—which, then, was abandoned—to the new temple. The house of the Lord was filled with a cloud, that is, the glory of the Lord; the glory of the Lord filled the house of God (2 Chr 5:14). This temple lasted for many centuries, but in 578 BC, it was destroyed by the Babylonians. After the exile, it was rebuilt, but again, in the year 70 AD, it was burnt to the ground by the Romans. The presence of God was no longer localized, and this fact provoked a great spiritual crisis for the Jews, especially those in the Diaspora.
The first tent and the first temple, therefore, were not permanent divine habitations for the Lord. At the time of Jesus, man was wandering in search of a God who could live among them in a more stable way. The ancient promises were brought to fulfillment when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14)—literally, he came and “pitched his tent” among us. This tent is his flesh.
There’s another biblical passage cited during the season of Christmas, which speaks of a tent. Psalm 18 says: He has set a tent for the sun, which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber (Ps 19:4-5). The Son of Righteousness is Christ, and his tent is a marriage bed, the womb of the Virgin Mary, in which the human nature and the divine nature of Christ are definitively united. Have you ever thought about the Virgin Mary as a tent?
And the temple? Jesus prophesizes the second destruction of the Temple, saying Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up…but he spoke of the temple of his body (Jn 2:19-21). On the day of Christmas, this body of the Lord isn’t housed in the “great and wonderful temple” of Jerusalem, nor in a cozy hotel, but in a manger. Perhaps we have this romantic idea of the stable—which we set up with great care in our homes—but it wasn’t more than a mere stall for animals. Isaiah speaks of the ox and the ass (cf. Is 1:3), and one can think about the comfort of their heat, but the beasts also make a mess, and Joseph surely would have had to clean the stall well before the birth.
The tent has become the womb of the Virgin and the temple has become the manger. All of this is truly joyful news for us, the Good News. Why? Because the secular desire for a God to dwell among us in a stable, secure, and definitive way – has been realized. The womb of Mary is a type for the Church, and from the virginal womb, from the baptismal font, new children are born for the Church. The manger is found in Bethlehem, the house of Bread, and in the manger lays the Bread of Life who has come down from heaven (cf. Jn 6:35-38). Christ is present in the tent of his Church, and is present in the temple of his Eucharistic body. These are the most precious Christmas gifts.
And not only that. Each Christian is a tent in which the Most High wants to dwell. The heart of each Christian is a manger in which lays the Prince of Peace. We search for the presence of the Lord, sometimes desperately, but it’s not necessary to go very far to find it. He is present in his Church; and he is present in our hearts.
During this Christmas season, while we set up our interior nativity scene, let’s do some cleaning of the stall, fill it up with some hay, and then spend some time with the Lord, contemplating his Desire to be in our hearts.
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)