As our culture has become increasingly secular and commercialized, there are fewer and fewer nativity scenes. There are more and more restrictions on where they may displayed. At several of my military bases, I sought permission from command leadership to set them up. One year after being denied setting the scene up by the front gate where it had been positioned for many consecutive years, the Wing Commander finally granted us permission, as long as it was placed near the chapel. It’s very difficult to get through the Advent season without seeing a nativity scene.
Sometimes, nativity scenes go missing. Just last year, a councilwoman in Pittsburgh discovered that a personal nativity scene, a family heirloom, had gone missing after she placed it under the City Council Christmas tree. It was a crèche that had belonged to her grandmother. Some believe it was a political theft having to do with church and state issues. In Spencer, Iowa, someone made off with one of the lambs from the nativity scene at Southpark Mall. The culprit has never been apprehended, no doubt on the lam with the lamb. Also last year, several figures from a nativity scene at a church in Maine were stolen the day after Christmas. Nativity theft is apparently a fairly common thing.
A little more than a year ago, Rev Timothy Merrill and his wife spotted a small advertisement about nativity scenes and recount the story: The website offered nativity figures hand-carved by a Chinese woodcarver. The pieces included stable animals, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. The customer could choose how many pieces he or she wanted, and the price was set accordingly. A 16-piece set cost more than an 8-piece set, for example. We wanted them all! So we made the order and in due time the package arrived. The order included a stable that could be pieced together. After assembling the stable, we unwrapped the hand-carved pieces. We placed them in the scene itself. The pieces were beautiful. Then we noticed something odd. We could not find a baby Jesus. Since the set also came in a large wooden box — a box that was full of Styrofoam peanuts, old newspapers used for wrapping and the like — we sifted through everything, pawing around, throwing stuff into the air. But still no baby. We wrote to the woodcarver about this. The website said that baby Jesus was included. Where is baby Jesus? He replied that he had discontinued baby Jesus because customers invariably lost the little baby woodcarving. I asked him if he would carve a baby Jesus for us. He said yes, but that he could not get it to us in time for Christmas. I would have it about February. This year, baby Jesus is in the nativity scene of the Merrill home.
Do we have baby Jesus in our scene, as it were — not just in a nativity scene, but in our lives throughout the year? Where is baby Jesus? Where is Jesus? Has he disappeared? Is there room for Jesus in your life right now? Let’s look at what and who we have room for — in general. The obvious answer is that we have room for our family, our spouse, our children and even extended family. This is as it should be, of course. Christmas is often a time when the family comes together. We also have room — not just for family — but for many other things. We have room for television and gaming, we have room for online surfing on Pinterest, Facebook and other sites. We have room for hobbies. We have room for eating out. It’s wonderful that we have room for all of these things, all of which can be and should be blessings in our lives. But all of these things for which we have room need to be linked to a larger purpose and meaning. Who is that meaning? Who is the purpose?
Baby Jesus is the purpose and the meaning. Without room for Jesus, without that spiritual connection, without that longing to be in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we are just doing fun things until we die and it is all over. Truth is, having baby Jesus in the nativity scene brings great joy! It is good news. It is “tidings of great joy!” Finding room for Jesus is not a negative thing. It is not a somber, dread, dreary and dull thing. With Jesus in our scene, our lives are suddenly purposeful. We have direction. We tag onto his values. We love what he loved. We value what he valued. We live for Someone and something outside of ourselves and that’s a good thing.
Jesus came to Earth, after all, for a reason — He came to find those who are lost. He came to fill the emptiness. He came to point us to the way, the truth and the life. He came to reveal God. He came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). There is an emptiness to living just for ourselves. It’s no surprise or accident that when people retire and find that they have more discretionary time, an overwhelming number volunteer for an organization that helps others. We really want to have something meaningful in our lives.
This is the gift that Jesus brings to us — the gift of meaning. It’s not that we’re secularists who want nothing to do with Jesus. That’s not us. The problem is that some of us have momentarily lost Jesus. He’s around here somewhere. You know that you put baby Jesus somewhere for safekeeping — someplace that you’d remember when it was time to retrieve him for an important occasion, like his birthday! But sometimes we can’t find him, can we? We’re too accustomed to living without him. And when we need him — well, we just don’t know what’s become of him. He’s in a drawer or a closet or a long-forgotten corner somewhere. We’ll find him someday, we’re sure of it. But right now, we have no clue. So life must go on. We construct our nativity scenes, our lives, and everything looks great, at least at first glance. But close inspection reveals something’s off. We’re all looking at different things. We really aren’t worshiping the Child who, in any case, is not in the manger. We all look preoccupied, as though we’re wondering what we’re doing. We’re still suffering from post-traumatic shopping disorder. It’s all a show.
The Merrills’ Chinese woodcarver said that many people simply lose baby Jesus. He’s so easy to lose, after all. There’s nothing malicious about it. People don’t intend to lose Jesus, he said. In fact, they probably made a commitment to keep Jesus, and put Jesus front and center where he belongs. But he got lost. Somehow, we weren’t paying attention. Perhaps he was set aside to make room for other elements of the scene, and the intention was to return him to his rightful place in our lives. But it didn’t happen. However, it can happen. We can return Jesus to his rightful place this Advent and Christmastide. I’m together with you on this holy quest.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isa. 43:18-19
Faithfully, Yours in Christ,