My mom has two nativity sets.
One is beautiful and crème colored, finely hand-carved from milky alabaster stone, each piece sitting on its brightly polished, black marble base. The female shepherd is just a little larger than Joseph, and so I’ve always wondered if she didn’t belong to a different set, but you only notice if you look closely. Besides, women can be tall, can’t they? The general impression, though, is of elegance. My siblings and I all chipped in and bought this nativity set over several years, back in the early 80s, beginning with the Holy Family, then the barn animals, then the wise men, the shepherds with the sheep, and lastly the camels. It looks terrific on Mom’s refectory table, where she has chosen to keep it up all year long. We all love it for its beauty.
Mom’s other crèche is older than my earliest memories. It’s made of once brightly colored, though long since faded, plaster and has been much chipped over the years. I’m certain that statues from other nativities have made their way into the set, as there are two dogs, two cows and multiple shepherds. There is also an old, beaten up stable, which once had hay in it, long lost now. While the children are not to touch Mom’s beautiful alabaster nativity, they have free rein to do what they want with this older, ragtag collection of figures. My nieces and nephews happily rearrange them. Sometimes they are left in twosomes, everyone having a private conversation, Mary with Joseph, the shepherds with each other, the donkey with the cows, and so on. Other times, various animals will end up on a roof, or the wise men will make their way, along with their camels, to some distant shelf, far from the stable, still on their journey. The children have free reign to do whatever is necessary and good, as they see it.
I love that beaten up old set because of the memories attached, and the scent of living Christmas trees that accompany it in my mind.
Of the two crèches, the one I think gets to the real moment of Jesus, born into this world a helpless babe, is the old and battered set. Somehow it manages to get closer to the stories told in Luke’s Gospel, of there being no room in an inn, of a food trough for animals, of shepherd guests. It’s a stark contrast to our bright lights, gilded bulbs, and lawn ornaments.
Don’t get me wrong – I have gilded bulbs on my tree…the better to celebrate the Lord of Light breaking into the world, but I think it very important not to forget the humble reality of the only nativity staged by the one born. In all of human history, only Jesus chose His own circumstances of birth, and they are telling. No bassinette, no fine linens, no doctors or nurses…no soft blue blankets, no safe warm home, no long prepared baby room…and for a king, no palace, no soldiers, no servants…no courtiers, no power, no glory…and for a child of his own time, no extended family, no fire in the fireplace, no neighbors to come and chortle over the newborn.
While you enjoy your Christmas feast, have a thought for that baby in the manger. From the very first, He embraced the human struggle, for love of you. We have good reason to celebrate, and even better reason to remember.
Merry Christmas from your priest,