What the Nativity Scene Said.

nativity scene lit
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Français : Exposition de crèches miniatures, h...
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Nativity Scenes.  There are serious ones and silly ones.  There are hand-crafted ones and manufactured ones.  They are high-brow and low-brow, beautiful and kitschy, made of wood, and glass, and plastic, and metal, and just about every material you can think of.  There are Veggie Tale Nativity Scenes, Little People Nativity Scenes, Native American-looking Nativity Scenes, African-looking Nativity Scenes, life-sized, barbie-doll sized, finger-puppet sized.

nativity scene
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Despite all this, they have some things in common.  Just about always, they have a manger and barn.  Just about always they have a figure for Mary and Joseph.  They have a baby Joseph figure.  Usually animals.  Sometimes, they feature the Wise Men, too. 

I think that each of these features of nativity scenes has something to say about the way we celebrate Christmas today.  I think that if our nativity scenes could talk, they would have some criticism for us.  And so this is the next idea about reclaiming Christmas I want to explore.  Principle 7. 

Tropenmuseum Amsterdam Crucifix with a christm...
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The Nativty Scene lies in stark contrast to the way we celebrate Christmas.

This could be expressed holistically.  The picture presented of Jesus’ birth in the bible could not possibly be more opposed to the picture of we crazy people, rushing, rushing, rushing, to grab, grab, grab, more food, more presents, more parties.

However, I think I’m going to explore this more thematacially.  Each of the elements of a traditional nativity scene has something to say.

Consider the structure itself.  Jesus was born in a barn.  This happened because the Roman Leader decided it was time to take a census.  He wielded the power to stop everybody from what they were doing, and force them back to thier ancestral homelands so that the book keeping was easy for the Romans.  They were opressed people in a world with out pity.   And the thing that Jesus’ setting makes me think of is the setting where many of our gifts are made.  Places where the opressed, just as Mary and Joseph were opressed, are forced to do things like work 14 hour days.  The unsanitary, unsafe conditions that Mary and Joseph faced are not so different from those workers’.

Krippe crib family w 3wisemen
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And then there are the farm animals.  Let’s call that a picture of nature.  We do the environment such a disservice.  We tear down trees for wrapping paper (which doesn’t easily recycle.)  We squander fuels to ship raw materials and finished products all over the world.  We fill our landfills with useless packaging.  We waste electricity on our gaudy displays.  If it seems like I’m stretching the animals’ role here, then what about  going back to what most livestock is used for.  America’s meat-heavy diet is unhealthy for us and the world around us.  It is epitimozed during the gluttony of the holiday season. 

There are good reasons to think that the Wise Men were not at the manger, that they, in fact, showed up to Jesus’ home much later.  Nonetheless, they make an appearance in many manger scenes.  And whether or not they were at the real manger, they have something to say about our holiday practices.

Nativity scene at Sacred Heart Catholic Church...
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Some people trace the practice of gift-giving at Christmas to the wise men.  But there is such a difference between what the wise men gave and the sort-of gifts we give.

Much is made of the symbolism of the gifts the wise men bore.  These were not cheap gifts given thoughtlessly.  Yet the wise men– sometimes viewed as kings– seem to have been able to afford the giving of these gifts.  The original gifts did not serve some shallow, frivilous need.  It is my personal theory that these gifts bankrolled the flight of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… but whether this is right or wrong, Jesus was not brought the latest pokemon game by the wisemen.

English: Image of the White House nativity sce...
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When I think about the appearance of Mary and Joseph in nativity scenes, I am struck by the fact that they did what needed to be done.  They were brave and godly and they stood up to the forces that aligned against them.  There are forces that are still aligned against we parents at Christmas time.  And yet I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of standing up to these forces, teaching and modeling to our kids what it is really all about.

Above this scene floated an angel.  This angel bore them glad tidings.  It promised liberation and freedom.  Our Christmas practices are ones which enslave us financially.  This message brought celebraton to those who hadn’t known.  We who are meant to carry that message today (the word “angel” can actually be translated as “messenger”) are not communicating a message worth rejoicing in; we are not demonstrating that we are really much different than the rest of the world, in how we celebrate this.

And of course, in the middle of it all, there is Jesus.  The whole point of these last several posts has been that we are just so out of step, in our Christmas celebrations, with what Jesus is all about.  So I hardly know how to add more to that here.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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