This is the sacred crystal relic of the Holy Crib in the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major) in Rome. It contains pieces of ancient wood that, according to tradition, were part of the actual manger of Baby Jesus.
It’s disarming and humbling to meditate on the earthly life of Jesus and realize that, from beginning to end, he lived it in utter poverty. He chose to be born in the smallness of an overlooked village of Judea, among shepherds—a frowned upon occupation by Jews—in a tiny cave where their animals took refuge. A manger, after all, is a feeding trough for animals like horses and cattle. Christ’s dwelling in a manger foreshadows the revelation that he is true food:
“Allegorically (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Catena of the Greek Fathers): the setting of Christ’s birth points us to the Eucharist. Since through sin man becomes like the beasts, Christ lies in the trough where animals feed, offering them, not hay, but his own body as life-giving bread.”—Scott Hahn & Curtis Mitch, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament
Christ did not descend to us as a grown man. Christ did not wait for space to free up in the inn. Christ did not enter the world through a prosperous family, Christ was not born in a grand city. The King of the Universe could have chosen any manner to come to us. The manner of his birth was a deliberate choice and a teaching in and of itself. The Word made flesh was already speaking to us before his flesh made words.
His example of poverty continued throughout his life. While we read of moments of feasting during his ministry—and the Pharisees tried to call him out on that (Luke 5:33-39)—that itself was a teaching that there are moments to feast and moments to fast.
Christ invites us not to live in material excess on this earth, but to instead store up treasures in heaven. Let us meditate on that as we kneel before the humble manger every Christmas.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”—Matthew 6:19-21
“How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!”—Mark 10:23-24