I’ve heard some funny stories about nativity scenes lately. One about a baby Jesus that went missing years ago that caused a man to grow up thinking Christmas must be about farm animals. Another about a baby Jesus with a broken leg (he was dropped). The guilty was reminded of his crime every Christmas. “You made baby Jesus cry!” Another I saw recently had kangaroos as all the characters. This might sound a bit silly or even offensive, but somehow it’s close to the heart of the origins of the nativity.
The nativity scene started with St. Francis (not forgetting Mary, Joseph and Jesus). He would construct scenes on hillsides of peasant villages to tell them of the story of God’s great love breaking into the world – into their world. “Look and see, God doesn’t live in big cathedrals visited by the rich in cities, he is one of you – like you, he found himself immersed in poverty and filth – and in so doing, made these earthy realities holy.” Until recent centuries, Franciscans would walk around barefoot, to connect them to the earth. This is not domination or dominion or even stewardship. This is kinship. Unifying seemingly disparate elements as so interconnected as to be family. Brother son, sister moon, mother earth.
Francis was a Seven on the Enneagram – a man of joy. He loved Christmas most of all. I grew up in a tradition that celebrated not Christmas but the resurrection as the high point, as evidence that Christ had defeated death and sin and that one day, so would we. Provided, that is, we remained obedient, diligent, faithful and ever so earnest. This made the work of maintaining my salvation a touch fretful and quite exhausting. Atonement – a constructed word that means what it says – at one – I was told was accomplished by Jesus taking God’s wrath against humanity on the cross and satisfying God’s justice. But Francis saw it differently. For him, the incarnation and birth was the in breaking of our awareness of the eternal indwelling of God with all creation. It was an act of utter panentheism – God is with us! God is in creation! God is in a human being. A human being is in a food trough for beasts. This food trough is in the ground. Stars are guiding wise men. Creation is the cradle, and the prince of peace is barefoot and even more beautiful for it. For Francis, Christmas is atonement. It did not promise God’s future at-one-ment with humanity but declared it for all creation, now!
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…. What nonsense. He wailed. How do I know? He became human, and in that, he declared the human experience as included in the divine story. Tears, hunger, nakedness, coldness, anger, frustration, loneliness, despair, grief, bewilderment – all belong. God is not avoiding being human. We (especially Christians) do. God is inefficient and uneconomical and uninterested in cleanliness at Christmas, and this is our invitation. God is asking us to follow him as he engages in the ordinary, the disappointing, the unpopular and powerless, not to embark on some heroic spiritual quest. To remember the asylum seeker, the poor and the homeless, for he was all these. So happy Christmas. May the year ahead engage us more fully in the spirit of what Christmas means. I will leave you with a quote by Thomas Merton that expresses the weakness, ordinariness – and importance – of what we are called to. This is what God presents to us in the birth of his son.
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. … Gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”