But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
Maybe 20 years ago (tell me it hasn’t really been that long!), my Mom asked what I would like for Christmas. I asked for a nativity scene. Also known as a crèche, I believe the nativity scene is THE symbol of Christmas. It illustrates the night of Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his story.
I also told Mom that I didn’t want a normal crèche. Many crèches I have seen are breakable, glossy, with all the figures coated in a creamy color. These are beautiful. But what I wanted was something that looked like real people; not just figurines. I wanted them to be non-breakable, pieces kids could play with.
It was early in the fall when we began talking about the nativity scene. One day while shopping with a friend, I saw the nativity scene that I thought would be great for me. Made out of wood, they were pencil-type figurines. While maybe their dimensions were skewed a bit, they actually had expressions on their faces, something I was looking for. I told my Mom about this set, noting internally that their cost was within a reasonable range. She arranged to purchase them and they were under her tree for me on Christmas day.
I love looking at other people’s crèches. Each one is unique and different. The style of the pieces is often indicative of the era in which it was created. You can sometimes guess which part of the world the nativity might have come from. Brown-faced figurines mean this set might have been made in Central America orSouth America. The clothes on these figurines are always a bit brighter and louder. And their stable is so different from the “pretty” stable my figurines are grouped around.
Nativity purists say that the wise men and the shepherds shouldn’t be in the stable at the same time because there is no way they both arrived the night of Jesus’ birth. We believe this because when King Herod gets outwitted by the magi and they don’t return to Jerusalem to tell him where the baby is, Herod issues an order to kill all boys in the Bethlehem vicinity who were two years old and under, “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matthew 2:16b) Personally, I group them all around Baby Jesus. My thought is they all did visit Jesus; maybe not at the same time, but that’s OK in my book.
Setting out the nativity is a big deal for me. I think about where I will station it within our home. I carefully unwrap each piece and look at their individual expressions. How people arrange them in the stable is always interesting. I’m always curious to see how various people set-up the crèche. Do the wise men and the shepherds look out at us … or in at the baby? Does the baby go in right away … or do you wait until Christmas Eve? Is the angel inside the stable or outside?
Several years ago, I had our nativity on the coffee table. I was meeting with a couple from church and two of their grandchildren were along. I let them play with my nativity – something the grandma was almost appalled with. But I had specifically chosen this crèche because I wanted kids to play with it, learn and remember the story, interact and vicariously become a wise man or a shepherd. One of the pieces fell off the table, landed on the floor and took a little chunk off a wise man’s foot. The grandma was very anxious. One of the pieces from my crèche (the pastor’s crèche, mind you) had been damaged. I gently tried to assure her that it wasn’t a big deal. If I didn’t want something to happen to the wise man, I shouldn’t have let the kids play with him.
After the family left, I walked over to the nativity. At the grandma’s coaxing, the kids had put the pieces back where they thought they should go. I had to laugh. Everything was in a completely different place than I had it. Having their perspective on where things should “go” was uplifting! I realized we all have a picture in our heads of what this scene might have looked like. It was refreshing to see an alternative to my picture. I left the pieces as the kids had organized them until the next set of kids came along and rearranged them again.
The children ofIsraelknew God was going to send the Messiah to redeem God’s people. Scripture reveals how the child would be born to a virgin, inBethlehem, and would be a descendent of their beloved King David. The Old Testament also gives hints about the star that guided the magi toBethlehemand the gifts they presented to the king.
What we see in the crèche is the fulfillment of all of these prophecies. We see the stable where the baby was born; the virgin mother Mary; his earthly father Joseph, a direct descendent of King David; the shepherds representing how he will shepherd his flock; the magi and their gifts from the East. Of course, the most important piece is the little baby in the manger.
A few years ago, my Mom gave me another nativity scene. This was is a pretty, breakable one, the beautiful Willow Creek version. These pieces are very different from my pencil-stick version. Willow Creek is unique in that the figures do not have faces painted on them. Mary is holding Jesus and Joseph has his had cupped near the Son of God. One year after Christmas, I never got this crèche put away. It was Lent, and it was still out. I was speaking about this with our friend, Gunta. She thought having the crèche out during Holy Week was just fine because it was a gentle reminder that Jesus started out as a babe inBethlehemin not the best of situations. Once again, in Holy Week, Jesus must endure challenging times; times that take him all the way to death on a cross.
Symbolism is alive and well in the Christian Christmas tradition. If you have a crèche in your home, arrange and rearrange the scene several times throughout this Advent. Get a different perspective each time the figurines are resituated. Have the people looking in; have the people looking out. Put the angel in, put the angel out. Hold onto the manger and the baby and say a prayer in your heart, pouring out to Jesus what his life means to you.
Let us pray: What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping? This! This! Is Christ the King, who shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, hast to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary. Amen.