I have a soft spot in my heart for nativity sets. I think it’s because the cast is familiar and recognizable, so much so that it can be altered to fit any culture and we still know what it is. It’s kind of like hearing “Silent Night” sung in many languages. We may not understand it, but we understand it. Variations on a theme.
But, of course, not all cultures know the significance of the nativity figures. While we were living in Asia, a few blocks away from our house there was a knick-knack store that during Christmastime was filled with Western decorations. Here’s what I wrote about that in a newsletter, 13 years ago:
Amongst the jumble of holiday odds and ends are the scattered pieces of a few nativity sets. On one shelf is a shepherd standing next to a Christmas tree. On another is a stable with only a wise man and Joseph. Without the infant Jesus, there’s no nativity, and the figures become just people staring at the ground, elbowing for space in between the rows upon rows of Santa Clauses.
In a Christian home, even the children understand that the characters in the nativity need to be close to the baby, usually fanned into a semicircle—arranged with balance and order—so that we can see them all. But the smaller kids know that an even better way is to put everybody shoulder to shoulder in a tight huddle with Jesus at the center—with maybe a Ninja Turtle and a Barbie getting in on the act. Don’t they all want to get a good view?
Having the unity of the nativity exploded throughout a store, that’s just not the way it’s supposed to be. Seeing the sacred mixed up with the commercial, that’s not a bad metaphor for our messed up world.
Actually, it’s not a bad metaphor at all. In fact, one could say it’s the way it ought to be.
What if we were to rethink the way we arrange our nativity sets? Of course, the baby Jesus would be on the table top, front and center, with Mary close by. Joseph, he could be not quite so close (he’s greeting visitors and keeping all those pesky animals from trying to eat out of the manger). The wise men could be under the Christmas tree (gifts are kind of their thing), better yet if they’re around a corner somewhere (since it’s going to take them a while to make it to Bethlehem).
As for the shepherds, some are with Jesus, but let’s scatter the others on the bookshelves around the room. They’re the ones who’ve come and gone and are now mixed in with the painted teapots, mystery novels, and framed family photos. They’re the ones who’ve been introduced to the Christ child and have already returned to the fields. They’re the ones who are spreading the word far and wide about what they’ve seen and heard.
Know anybody else like that?
Thank you, dear shepherds for continuing to spread that word today.
Thank you for leaving the in-here for the out-there. I know it can be especially hard at this time of year.
Thank you for living outside the semicircle.
Thank you for carrying the Good News to the faraway shelves where they don’t even know that the baby is missing.