As we discovered yesterday, Francis of Assisi was credited for the beginning of the Christmas carol. He was also credited for the establishment of the first nativity scene - something we have come to appreciate as a "symbol" of the Christmas season in many a culture. At first, these scenes were simple, perhaps only depicting the three characters of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. In 1223, Francis set up a living nativity, featuring living people as the characters in the scene - a tool whereby he could teach about the birth of Jesus. As we all know, we humans do a lot better when there is something to capture our attention and to give us a "picture" of what it is we are considering. The use of the nativity was Francis' way of doing just this. We all need instruction to help us "get" what is complex and not always easily grasped by the human mind. Perhaps we can benefit from a consideration of the next nativity scene we see in our travels this season!
After the angels had left and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying on a bed of hay. When the shepherds saw Jesus, they told his parents what the angel had said about him. Everyone listened and was surprised. But Mary kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant. (Luke 2:15-18 CEV)
One of the essential purposes of the first living nativity was to help us connect with the true humility of Christ - the simple birth, not in an elaborate display of pomp and circumstance, but in the simplicity of a cave of sorts, among the animals, in the quiet of the night. There is much to be said of connecting with the symbolism of Christ's birth - but nothing stands out more than the extreme degree of love God has for us to have left his divinity to take on the form of a human! The scripture declares, "You know that our Lord Jesus Christ was kind enough to give up all his riches and become poor, so that you could become rich." (I Corinthians 8:9 CEV) I think Francis may have wanted us to understand the intensity of God's love, the extreme depth of his grace, and the significance of Christ's sacrifice on our behalf.
Our nativity scenes of today range from the three figurines to a vast variety of animals, shepherds, wise men, and the like. I am blessed to have a hand-crafted one made by my mother out of ceramics. She has meticulously hand-painted each one of the figurines and my dad made the crest into which I can display these beautiful pieces. One of the most prominent parts of this scene is not even part of the scene, though. I typically put this scene somewhere so I can attach a light just above it, shining down into the scene. Why? I do this to show something I think we often forget about Christmas - the introduction of "true light" into a very dark world! The simple light is cast upon the figurines depicting the nativity, but it is this light of Christ which beckons to our hearts - this "true" light which holds the key to our deepest need!
A few years back, a silly (and I do mean silly) movie called Talladega Nights came out depicting this race car driver named "Ricky Bobby" who constantly referred to Jesus as "newborn infant Jesus" or "baby Jesus in a manger". Here is how so many people think of Jesus - the baby in the manger. It is as though Jesus never "grew up", never became a man, never returned to his home at the right hand of his Father. Now, lest you think I am endorsing this movie, let me assure you I am not! I just wanted to make the point that many of us often associate Jesus as a helpless infant in a manger. Although the nativity scenes are a beautiful tradition of our season, if all we "get" from them is this image of Jesus, we will always have a "small" image of our great God!
You see, God became flesh, dwelt among us - coming into this world as a baby, lying in a manger. He did not stay in the manger, my friends! For in time, he grew, took on the skills of his household (likely carpentry), and later became a "gifted" teacher who many referred to as Rabbi or Teacher. He is found raising the dead, healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, and setting the demon-possessed free from their shackled way of living - not as a babe in a manger, but as a "God with a Bod" (to coin my pastor's favorite saying). He took on the form of man - but he lives today as fully human and fully divine! His coming made a way for us to enter into a deep, personal relationship with a holy and majestic God. At Christmas we celebrate his coming - at Easter we celebrate his death, burial, and resurrection. Each moment captured in the traditions of the seasons.
Let's not forget the God we serve this holiday season. Let's reflect upon the majesty of Christ's birth, the extreme humility he displayed in laying down his divinity, so he could connect with each of us and prepare the way for us to enter into perfect relationship with God the Father. Just sayin!