The Gritty Reality of the Nativity

Are we participants or watchers of the Christmas story?

I love getting ready for Christmas. I pull all the boxes out of storage and set about making the house ready for the holiday. I love the tree, the advent calendar, and the lights, but my favorite decoration is the nativity créche. I love to place it on the sill of my bay window, spacing the figurines so that it becomes a beautiful centerpiece to the living room.

There they are nicely laid out; Mary, Joseph, the wise men, angels, and shepherds all lined in a row near the manger surrounding the baby Jesus. It's a harmonious arrangement with staggered heights, pleasing to the eye. Everyone is looking as if they were on stage. The bodies turned so that the audience has a full view of everyone, not missing the scene. Ah, design perfection!

That's how it was until my two daughters got into the decorating act. My daughters have taken over the placing of the créche and their design style is, well, not really in sync with my vision of Christmas. My pragmatist girls want to arrange the scene, insisting on accuracy. They aren't interested in decoration or design. Symmetry doesn't even enter their thinking. The only thing that matters is that the scene is realistic.

Instead of lining up neatly for our decorating pleasure, my daughters have the characters stay true to their mission: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and wise men; all the players in the scene are real people who have come to see Jesus. They crowd in around the small manger; everyone jockeying for a spot close to the baby. Jesus is the focus of the entire scene. From where I sit on the couch I can see the back of a wise man and the rear end of the sheep.

In order to glimpse the baby in Bethlehem, I have to stand close and peer over Joseph's shoulder. Joseph is busy making sure no one gets too close. He and Mary gaze at the child lovingly. The cow looks like he wants to chew the hay on which the baby Jesus is sleeping. The sheep is nudging toward the baby. Maybe that's why Joseph has that stick; not for walking but for crowd control.

I'm appalled. The scene is nothing less than a riot and it certainly doesn't measure up to my standards. After the girls first "arranged" the nativity, I carefully snuck into the living room after bedtime and repositioned the characters in a more traditional and pleasing way. By lunchtime the next day the unruly mob was back. Lambs mingled with donkeys, and wise men were tackling shepherds in order to get a better view. After about two days of going back and forth with our versions, I gave up and let the girls have their way. That's when the true meaning of Christmas started to work on me.

Rethinking the Nativity

Even though I don't like my children's less aesthetic version, theirs is a natural, organic picture of the nativity. It's probably closer to what actually happened long ago in Bethlehem than anything we've seen since Hallmark horned in on Christmas. My girls possess a kind of faith that makes them able to see the scene as it was really happening. I think this is just the kind of faith Jesus was talking about in Matthew 17:20. Mustard seed faith can move mountains but it can also transport us back to Bethlehem. Children are not hindered by the fact that the historical nativity took place more than 2,000 years ago. They can hear the angels singing and the cows mooing.

This new gritty snapshot takes some getting used to. It takes this rearranging to remind me of the miracle of that night. It isn't a scene for our display, but for our transformation. We need to be transformed from casual holiday observers to participants in the story. I'm reminded staring at the crowded scene, that the original visitors were oblivious to everyone else except the tiny baby. The wise men didn't line up according to height, and the sheep were probably not washed before they crammed in to see Jesus. My children had no idea when they set about rearranging our manger that they would cause me to reconsider the whole thing.

When I glance at this new version, God immediately reminds me of what Christmas is really supposed to be. It's a crowded scene of dirty, poor people coming together in a cramped place, forgetting everything else except the baby in front of them. Jesus is the focus. The angels lead everyone to him. This event isn't meant for holiday entertainment. It's the reality of God becoming one of us! He steps down from heaven to enter into his creation.

I need to take my place in the manger scene as a participant, not sitting in the audience watching the Christmas drama. I need to come alongside king and shepherd, cow and sheep, peering at, elbowing my way to see Jesus. This is what Christmas is: my first glimpse of the baby born to save me. As much as it took place thousands of years ago, it takes place again when God extends the invitation to me.

Participants in the Scene

Over the years, I've given up trying to decorate the tree or place my nativity in a pleasing, traditional stance. My children have shown me that placement isn't really important. When we set the figurines around Jesus, it's a tangible reminder of our family coming there too. We're dirty, poor, and have nothing to give. We see the star and hear the angels singing. It's our turn to come adore the new born king. Christ never meant us to be audience members. We are participants ourselves in the scene. We come and worship, and then are responsible to lead others there.

Somehow the wonder of child-like pretending is a useful skill at Christmas. My children enter into the Christmas story each year like it's happening over again. In my adult sensibilities I've mastered the art of nostalgia. I look on at the nativity with the sentimentality that my culture has helped me to create. I'm like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby when he says he prefers the baby Jesus, all sweet and cuddly. I too prefer the safe, comfortable traditions of Christmas. My children acting as unknowing agents of God disturb my sentimentality. They pull me back to the real world. The real world in which a real Jesus was born a real baby, in a real dirty, stinking barn, and real people crammed in to see him. Then in the miracle of God's mystery I realize that I really am there. Every year I get the invitation to come and see the King born in Bethlehem.

It's dangerous to let go of my expectations of what a Christmas celebration is supposed to be. Although I love my third person objectivity, this event is meant to change me. As a participant I don't really know how the story is going to end. The wise men didn't have the foggiest idea that centuries later people would sing songs about their journey. The shepherds didn't think about how they were going to market what they experiencing. Wal-Mart Christmas glitz was inconceivable to them. They came to Bethlehem to meet God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had no idea what their future would be but they knew that life would never be the same again after that night. In a sense, they let go of their future to live in the presence of Immanuel, God with Us. This is still the scary part of Christmas. When I enter into the story, I too let go of my future. I come vulnerable to the baby and open myself to what he wants to make of me. Somehow, I don't think I can box this up in January. Will I keep my distance or can I be as brave as my daughters, who throw caution to the wind and run to Bethlehem following right on the heels of the sheep?

Maybe one year, I'll add figures: a man, a woman, and two girls—the occupants of our home. So that I can remember that Christmas isn't just for decoration, but for transformation—my transformation, which comes in the form of an invitation to be part of the Christmas story. O come let me adore him.

Jill C. Perrin is a stay-at-home mom, part-time children's minister, and freelance author. She lives with her family in Rhode Island.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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