I have become fond of the Methodists’ nativity set they put up in front of the pulpit in Ad-vent. Their church, their ‘toys’, their rules – I’ve no problem with – as we set up and take down our liturgical furnishings. But when I first saw their Nativity set (as I carried it away into the vestry!) I would just shake my head at it and think ‘that’s how to scare the kid-dies!’. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about go and have a look (I no longer remove it to the vestry) and see if anything strikes you as … different.
It’s the usual Nativity tableau compressing maybe up to 2 years into one moment with the usual cast – holy family, shepherds, Magi, in a stable with associated animals. But you also have the monster cow, the small camel, and sheep that no shepherd could carry on his shoulders!
I have watched people look at it and not miss a beat – it’s yet another nativity scene. I’ve seen people do the double-take, point, and comment about the scene. Something’s different in it, that’s for sure!
I’m pretty sure monster cows will never take on! But nativity scenes have been around for nearly 800 years (first attributed to St Francis of Assisi who used ‘living’ nativity scenes to bring home to people the message of Christmas). Singing Christmas carols began about the 13th century but our carolling in England is more Dickensian. We associate Christmas with Christmas trees – it wouldn’t be Christmas without one it seems – but they’re only about 600 years old and even Martin Luther is sometimes claimed as the first to have a tree with candles in the house. Here in the UK it is a fashion that has come from royalty in the 19th century. Much of what we associate as Christmas-y was banned by the Puritans in the 17th century as being not Christian enough! Our celebration of Christmas would have met with blank or quizzical stares from our brothers and sisters in The Faith of the first three centuries (Christmas observances only seemed to begin in the 4th century).
I’m not suggesting that Christmas is either unimportant or so malleable that we can pour in any message we like. But I am suggesting that the Christmas perspective we need to have no matter our celebration of Christmas – no matter what we see to help us remember – is that something different happened on Planet Earth hidden before our eyes – that, to use an image from C S Lewis, God is invading enemy territory to bring an end to war and sin and death. You’d expect something like that to either be full force (maybe 12 legions of angels?) or stealth and camouflage. But no one expects it to be a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger. Or later a cross. That’s the message we need to receive however else we celebrate Christmas. — GS