Summary: Most nativity scenes portray a cute scene of a happy little family, & friendly visitors. That's the way we like to think of it, but it's hardly realistic. When we pause at the manger with this image, we maybe forget that this infant was born to die.
Every year, at about this time, my dad has this tradition of getting out old home movies. A lot of families have a tradition of watching their favorite Christmas movie: “Home Alone,” or “Elf,” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” or “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or what have you. But for my dad, he likes to stick to the “family classics.” His family. Our family. Whether it’s watching the silent home movies from when he was a boy at Christmas, or replaying the scenes of my siblings and I opening our presents when we were just kids. Those are the Christmas movies Dad likes to watch at this time of year. To rewind back to those distant memories. To replay those fond moments. And to pause on those precious scenes, to reminisce and reflect, and think about “the good old days.”
We all do this, though, don’t we? Maybe not by watching old home movies—but we do it through all of the little traditions we hold onto. From the food we eat, to the music we listen to, we’re just rewinding back to those distant memories we’ve held onto for so long. From the moment the decorations go up, and then when they’re taken back down, we’re just replaying those fond moments for ourselves. Each piece, each ornament seems to carry with it a history, a story, a smile. And then, after all the busyness, all of the planning and buying and wrapping and traveling—finally, the day arrives. And we gather with friends and family, people we care about. We call, text, Skype, FaceTime. And then what do we do? We pause. We reminisce with one another, telling the same old stories, year after year, thinking about the way things used to be. Even romanticizing those “good old days,” looking back through rose-colored lenses, leaving out the more painful details.
Christmas is a wonderful time. A time for nostalgia. A time to rewind, replay, and pause. Never a time to fast-forward; only to rewind, replay, and pause. But I wonder if we press pause at the manger scene for a bit too long each year. Throughout Advent, as we begin a new church year, we rewind through our Scripture readings, pointing to God’s promise of a Messiah. We replay the scenes of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. And then we get to Christmas Eve; we place this statue of a baby in the manger; and we pause.
I’m not saying any of that is bad. It is a good thing for us to join in the narrative of God’s people through Scripture. As the people of Israel awaited their Messiah, we now await Christ’s return. As John the Baptist prepared the Judeans for Jesus, we now prepare for His coming again on the last day. And as so few paid any attention to the wonder in Bethlehem, so we now marvel in awe at the manger scene. While the world keeps going, God’s people gather to reflect on how He came in the flesh to be with us! But it is here, I think, we tend to pause a little too long. And we look at the scene with those rose-colored lenses. We don’t like to fast-forward the scene beyond that “silent night,” that “holy night.” We don’t like to fast-forward, because we know where it leads. We don’t like to fast-forward on this serene scene, because it forces us to acknowledge that this sweet, innocent infant was born to die. And that’s a heart-wrenching thought.
No, we much more prefer to pause at the picturesque portrait of the “holy family.” Gentle Mary and Joseph dearest looking down in a great and mighty wonder, marveling at this miracle in the manger. One or two shepherds quietly quaking at the sight, standing by, holding a perfectly clean and white, fluffy sheep. And more than likely, your nostalgic nativity includes 3 wise men—no more, no less—having traversed afar, now bowing before their king, not even questioning the locale or the humble surroundings. There’s usually a lone angel, perched on top of the stable, and holding an unfurled banner that says something like, “Glory to God in the Highest,” or “Peace on Earth.” And, of course, there’s a baby—often blond-headed, interestingly—wearing only a diaper and a smile, eyes wide-open but no crying he makes, and his arms are out-stretched as if reaching to you for a hug. That’s our nativity. That’s the way we like to remember it. That’s where we pause.
But the problem is, when we pause here with these statues, we can forget the harsh reality of it all. I mean, just look at the size of that baby compared to the size of Mary. Poor girl! But SHE doesn’t appear exhausted in the least. No she’s just kneeling there, her clothes are spotless, hands manicured perfectly, hair looks amazing. Yeah, right! I was in the delivery room throughout my wife's entire labor with our daughter. And, while she was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen her, that day…she didn’t look like THAT, all put together so well! She certainly wasn’t ready to get up, walk around, and kneel there, squatting beside her little baby. That would have been…a bit of a mess, let’s say.