The riddle of the five kings!

Fr Joe McDonald, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin, appeals for us all to live the real crib this Christmas – in a characteristically blunt and lucid manner.

Ah look at the baby Jesus! So cute? I love the animals. Even the way the cow and the donkey are looking at the baby. And the statues. Virgin Mary blue. Venerable Joseph. Swaddling clothes. Holy straw. Time to take a fresh piece to replace last year’s still stuck behind the Sacred Heart picture. Our cribs are pretty antiseptic. Neat predictability. Yes they do the job. Whatever that means.

How we look at the crib this year may be telling in terms of how we look at the Church in these synodal days. These days of ‘building hope!’ Will we once again adopt observer status and look at the familiar and nostalgic story of our childhood from a distance? Will this year’s crib visit come and go quicker than the turkey and with less impact than the Brussel sprouts? No blood sweat or tears, no dung, or if there is, it’s sweet smelling.

Do we do to the crib, what we do to the cross? When was the last time the stench of Calvary besieged your nostrils, the cries of death from that city dump seep through your ears down into your heart and soul? When did you last sit with the utter shame and complete loneliness and abandonment of Calvary? Maybe we do the same to Jesus himself?

Have you made Jesus into your own image and likeness? Is your Jesus cute, cuddly and cosy? Meek and mild. Or maybe you belong to the other shower? Maybe your Jesus is a first cousin of the grim reaper? Maybe your Jesus makes Voldemort look like a welcome dinner guest?


The reality is, most of us, including the so called holy, maybe especially the holy, have very little grasp of the reality of Jesus. A good start would be to let go of the half-baked, anaemic Jesus that we have little more than a nodding acquaintance with. Then we have the chance to begin the exhilarating adventure of immersing ourselves in the real Jesus and begin to experience the most profound change in our lives.

What stops us? Is it that we resist knowing Jesus? Individually or as community? Is it weariness or wariness? Unfortunately I think it’s worse than that. There may well be a wilful intention to keep the real Jesus under wraps? Better leave him there in the swaddling clothes. This Jesus is just too much! Too hot to handle. Too subversive. They all eventually run away.

If we as a faith community, the Church, were to seriously live the gift of the Christ-child at Christmas it would bring us into a much more uneasy relationship with the state – and indeed popular culture. We can’t really have that. It’s just too messy. Too unpredictable.

The truth is, deep down we know that if we were to seriously live the crib this Christmas we would welcome many more Ukrainians, and others, and there would be room for them and they, and we, would have a Christmas of profound joy.

Back to the crib

Could it be that the real clue to many of these questions lies in the kings? The riddle of the five kings goes something like this: How many kings are there in the crib? Traditionally we have the three that make the headlines: Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior. Of course their presents whilst spectacular and each with their own significance, are outshone by the presence of another king.

This king is lying in the manger. He is the servant king. Visitors, even important ones, go home. Eliot hints these visitors went home changed. Changed by the nativity. Unlike us. Sterile. A cold coming they had of it. Defrosted. Warmed by the encounter.

The fifth king does not want to be seen. Do we want to see him? He is hiding in the background, there in the corner. Just over Mary’s shoulder, barely visible, the bleak furtive menace. Thanatos, Voldemort, Beelzebub or in this manifestation, the dysfunctional madly paranoid Herod.

He represents the ever present threat in the life of Jesus from womb to tomb. It is the threat that you and I live with. Yes it has the epic moments of Gethsemane and Calvary but in fact for most of us, it presents as less of a drumroll, and more of a corrosive rust.

Unless we consciously embrace the Holy Spirit, the only real answer to the malevolent force, then the negative narrative wears us down. Yes it may find its crescendo in war, disease and famine but it works covertly and effectively in our workplace, our home and eventually it takes a hold in our hearts.

Where’s your hope father? You call yourself a priest?

So where’s my hope? In the Church? Yes, well maybe, though to some degree the jury is still out on that. In the “Building Hope” initiative here in the Dublin diocese – it certainly looks promising. My hope is rooted in Jesus. My hope is the crib. In the infant, vulnerable to menace, and yet emerging as the light of the world. My hope is on the cross. Ultimately my hope is in the empty tomb.

Maybe this year we’ll take time to stare, to gaze, to pray the crib. In the retelling of it to children let’s not bleach away its meaning. Age appropriate does not necessitate dilution. Maybe we could be a little less worried about political correctness.

These days people say granny passed. Passed what? Her driving test? Wind? No granny died, and that’s ok, she has gone to meet God. She will meet others she loved. God will welcome her and be good to her.

The poverty, pain and suffering in the Jesus story, including the ever menacing presence of ‘the bad guy’ does not change the fact that we are proclaiming good news. Evil, though present, does not prevail.

Fr Joe McDonald is a priest of the Archdiocese of Dublin. 

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