One of the biggest challenges for those of us charged with narrating the Nativity each year is to allow the essence of the story to emerge through the sentiment and tinsel and, yes, the celebratory drudgery that many deem it their annual obligation to tolerate.
A few Christmases ago, we ordered a heavy duty set of Nativity figures to display at the front of the church. They arrived, mere outlines cut out of marine plywood, blank and unadorned – white canvas upon which we amateur artists were invited to take acrylic paints and fill in appropriately. Being who we are, we saw this as an opportunity to make a statement beyond what might be expected of the traditional manger scene. We kept all the original players – Mary, Joseph, shepherds, magi and, of course, sheep, cattle and camels. Rather than paint the life-size figures, we dressed them in fabrics depicting ancient middle eastern dress, but used posed photographs of various members of the congregation who were quite happy to model Melchior, Joseph or a shepherd.
The effect was that the Christmas creche had a startling effect on those who saw it. The figures gathered around the Christ child were not exotic and foreign, but people they knew. “That’s us!” came the involuntary exclamation several times. “You know what – you’re right!” I replied. The traditional message of Immanuel – God with us – had snuck in at a different level and startled Christmas worshipers as surely as the messengers startled the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
We aren’t putting the figures out this year. Silverfish have been feasting, and maybe the impact has softened anyway.
We are searching for another way to keep the startle in Christmas. We have two days left. We might just wait and see what happens!
After all, the unexpected usually emerges out of something going wrong.
Mice ate the organ bellows rendering the little Austrian church without a musical instrument one Christmas Eve. The pastor hurriedly wrote a simple a capella carol. We sing it today as “Silent Night.”
Who knows what the silverfish will bring?