When I was a little girl, our family had a small glass bowl we situated in the middle of our Advent wreath. When one of us kids did a good deed, we got to place a piece of straw in the bowl. The straw took on a lovely, warm glow through the crystal when the Advent candles were lit.
My mother made a beautiful ceramic crèche complete with the three wise men, two shepherds, Mary, Joseph, donkeys, camels, and angels. We kept the tiny manger empty and hid baby Jesus behind the display throughout Advent. On Christmas Eve, we took the straw saved up in the bowl and placed it in the ceramic manger to make a soft bed for baby Jesus. If we had extra straw, we put some near the cows and donkeys for them to eat.
It felt good to earn straw throughout Advent. It gave new dignity and purpose to simple things, like letting my sisters borrow my toys or being a helper at school—I wasn’t doing it simply to be nice, I was doing it for the sake of baby Jesus lying cold and helpless in the manger. Despite the pride I felt while earning the straw, when the time came to place it in the manger, I always felt underwhelmed. The straw looked so measly next to the beautiful ceramic hands of Mary and the smooth little figurine of baby Jesus. And there was never enough straw. Every year I wished I could have earned just one piece more.
So it goes with all our earthly efforts. Try as we might, our works will always pale in comparison to Jesus’ divine work in the Incarnation. St. Thomas Aquinas learned this lesson in a supernatural way, when, after a vision, he declared that his entire theological work was straw. Far from a reason to despair of doing good works, however, when we see how insignificant our efforts are compared to what has been done for us, it should inspire us.
Just as the Advent candles illuminated the straw throughout advent, Jesus illuminates our humble attempts to do good works through his Incarnation. If measly pale straw can transform into warm gold in the light of four simple candles, our meek efforts to bring good into the world can be glorified by God’s light and Christ’s Incarnation. The whole time I was working hard to earn straw as a child, I thought Jesus needed my help to keep his bed soft, but in reality, I needed Jesus to sustain my efforts and give them meaning.