AB: We’ve made no secret of how we often jokingly refer to the 4:30 Family Service as, “The Running of the Children.” It begins innocently enough; with the sanctuary decked out in its Christmas finest. And the families file in decked out in theirs, too. We do our best to match the enthusiasm of the evening’s crowd, but it doesn’t take long for their excitement to drown out ours.
SW: We meet them at the doors of the sanctuary to ask if the children want to carry up a crèche figure as we read the old stories of Christmas. Each child’s face is beautiful. Some are shy, some eager as they survey our motley collection of well-worn Nativity figures, however known. “Do you want a Mary, a shepherd, a cow?” Or, in our case, a palm tree, a rabbit, or even our one dinosaur who was passing through with a child one Christmas Eve, but decided to stay in Gainesville. It happens.
TR: The crèche sets the timbre for the Spirit of Christmas; and there is a part for everyone. In other beloved traditions of UCG, the creche is the backdrop, the Christmas pageant in a most evident way, allowing room for all and lifting up the profound truth that each life is sacred as we “change the baby,” seeing Jesus in each small face. During Lessons and Carols, the story of these characters is told through word and song, weaving new colors and textures, adding sounds to the scene. Angels soar around us, bringing joy to all. The characters of the creche have shaped our imagining of the Christmas story.
SW: This may be surprising to you to learn, but there is a worldwide organization called “Friends of the Creche” for people who are interested, okay, really interested in, the history, the creation, and the collecting of Nativity scenes. Though we aren’t official members yet, it may be true that all three of your ministers have a few creches at our houses. Maybe you do, too. I don’t know how the fascination started for me or for Talia or Andy, but according to legend, it all started simply, with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, who set up a manger filled with hay, tied a donkey and an ox near and invited folks to attend as he celebrated Mass in front of the crib. No humans at the first one–just a crib and the creatures. By the middle of the 1300s outdoor, peopled Nativity reenactments were popular throughout Christendom. But by the 17th century the Church deemed the plays sinful and too earthy and richly robed statues replaced human and animal participants and set up in side chapels of cathedrals in static display. But by the middle of the 1800s, manger scenes returned to the people in miniature forms, created from the hearts and hands of folk artisans around the world. Figures handcrafted and humble were woven, carved, and crafted so that every home could have one. And we unpack them every year, and ponder with renewed wonder, our own favorite characters and memories of Christmases long, long ago.
TR: One of my earliest childhood memories is from our last Christmas Eve before moving to Florida, at the First Congregational Church of Dalton, Massachusetts. I was seven and my sister, Briana, was three. As the pageant began, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the angels began to process down the center aisle of the church. When they found their way to the manger scene at the front of the church and were taking their places, my sister stood up on the pew and stared at the back of the church, then at the manger scene, and then again at the back of the church. After a few moments of fixated stare, she said – in a voice loud enough for the whole church to hear- “HEY – Where are the Wise Guys?” From then on, the magi have held a special place in our family. Many of my favorite nativities feature magi in a variety of garb and with a diversity of gifts. In this one, from Ghana, the magi kneel before Mary, and it is one of my favorites because I believe they are wise because they are listening and learning from her story, her song. It also echoes the story of the birth of Jesus in the Quran, where there is no mention of Joseph and Mary gives birth on her own at the base of a Palm tree while God provides dates and a rivulet of water for her. Mary is the heroine of this story, a revolutionary who sings and dances her way to a new world, and here she is doing just that, joyously dancing her lesson to the Magi, showing them a new path of love and light.
AB: My favorite creche set growing up was a little wooden one with Victorian era realistic figurines crafted in clay and painted with tempera. I still remember the cold of the formal living room in our house in Chicago, where I would reenact the play in my mind, with shepherds over in the blue chair; angels strumming little harps precariously balanced on the wooden rooftop of the manger; and the magi making their way to the manger scene by way of the yellow couch. Many days it would be the journey of the magi that would captivate my imagination; those adventurous few, overcoming unforeseen challenges posed by my vast collection of Adventure People and GI Joe action figures. In my version of the story, they were protected by and partnered up with Han Solo and Luke Skywalker; wanders of their own accord, fellow pilgrims seeking answers to similar mysteries of the cosmos. They all were night time adventurers following their own set of stars, seeking a new hope to bring balance to an unbalanced world.
SW: I can’t possibly say which crèche is my favorite, for they all have a special place in my heart for all that they represent. I love the ones my mother painted so long ago, when her mind was clear and her eyesight was keen and her hands steady enough to paint the startled face of a teenage shepherd. The tiny one I bought in Zambia is crafted out of scrap metal and baby Jesus is wrapped in a discarded gum wrapper for there, every piece of everything is a valuable commodity. The one from Mexico speaks of the whimsy of Christmas, painted all blue and populated by a donkey, cow, and what look for all the world to be sea lions crouching by the manger –all with bright red lipstick on their happy upturned mouths. My Guatemalan one has a hungry holy family–immigrant workers with their heavy baskets– and cats and dogs and chickens waiting by their house made all of sticks. The one from Ireland is made of stone and looks like a Celtic dolmen. When my spirit feels cold and I struggle against the bleak midwinter of the heart, its rigidity reminds me to open, to be willing to melt into the mystery.
TR: My favorite Christmas song is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I love that the mighty king listens to a poor shepherd boy with no power or political consequence and that his directive is to pray for peace, goodness, and light. That the call to the King is to bring the poor, cold, refugee child silver and gold. But, what I love the most, is that it all starts with creation. It’s the wind that speaks to the sheep of the bright star in the sky and the lamb that asks the shepherd boy to take notice of the angels’ voices ringing through the night. It is creation that called first, asking us to take notice of the vulnerable one in the night, and creatures that make the stable story complete with their warmth and welcome. Many of my creche sets have a variety of animals, elephants and tigers, dolphins and parrots, polar bears and walrus, fox and bear, and coqui frogs abound in my favorite from Puerto Rico. It is the same story that echoes in each, for it is in the lion and the lamb, and the wholeness of creation, that the story of peace is fulfilled.
AB: And every year, even though I know the stories of the Nativity by heart, I relate to different characters of the story at different times in my life. There are many moods to the Christmas cantata, and there is a place for you and what you carry in your hearts this holiday season beside the manger. In this time of the Longest night, for me it feels like The deeper questions of life blink and shine like lights on the tree; penetrating whatever shadows I might be harboring in my heart. It is a good time for deeper questions of life. So I wonder, What questions do you bring in your heart this season? And is there a particular character of the Nativity To whom do you most relate? Are you feeling like (one of Luke’s) shepherds? Out wandering the fields of night; distanced from the rigors of the world; perhaps intentionally, perhaps not.
If so, what is the message you need to hear that will bring you hope?
Or are you feeling more like Matthew’s magi; seeking salvation in mysterious places, wondering and wandering; watching for sacred signs from above; yet mindful of a world steeped in suspicion and fear. If so, what is the sign that you are looking for; a sign that will inspire you to action and adoration?
God, through Gabriel speaks to Joseph in dreams, and shakes him from his non-confrontational livelihood and directs him to a bold new existence, breaking societal norms and standing in solidarity with his beloved Mary. And Mary’s fierce courage proudly accepts God’s prompt to raise her child as the beloved child of God, who will be raised to turn the world upside down; establishing a new world order based in love, hope, joy and peace. Are they your inspiration this year?
SW: How is it with your soul this Christmas Eve? As you look at the Nativity scene, what do you see? Is it filled with light or shrouded in shadow? Isaiah the prophet writes that when the light has come, when the mystery is fulfilled, then the creation itself and we ourselves will be brought together, healed. He writes, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!….For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
TR: Crèche sets, varied and beautiful, reflect the mystery of the story. In our own scripture traditions there are 2 versions of the story, the Shepherds and the Magi; I have already mentioned the birth story from the tradition of our Muslim siblings in faith, and as we delve further into the apocryphal texts we find a cave with a local midwife, dragons and wild beasts worshipping Jesus, and trees bowing to Mary. Cultures merge as we recognize that the story belongs to all of us, each of us placing some of our own meaning in the manger.
SW: As you go on your Christmas way tonight, maybe there will be a Nativity scene coming to a home or a heart near you. Sometimes they look quaint or just nostalgic, sitting in shadows on a shelf. Sometimes the Christmas story itself just seems old, too, and like the figurines, static, maybe good for nothing more than to be packed away wistfully and stored for another year. Nevertheless, it persists, the challenge of the Christmas crèche, pushing through to our place and time. I saw a modern one recently in which Joseph has the trimmed-up hipster beard, his hair swept up in a man bun as he and a stylish Mary lean in over the manger for a selfie as they await the wise ones sweeping in from the board walk on their segways and carrying Amazon boxes, and at first I laughed, and then I also asked, “For unto us, too, is the Child born?” For if the scene is to hold anyone, does it not also hold our material world, too? Does it not include us, too, this good news–the message of peace on Earth, good will to all? Does it not also challenge our Herods and harriedness and press through our dangerous longest nights of materialism and climate destruction, racism and violence to demand, “Let there be Light!” Are we not also to be found there, in the scene? In our children’s Christmas pageant, we have a moment when a white-bearded Father Time steps forward just as the holy family place themselves in the Nativity, surrounded by all the usual suspects. It is a funny, jarring, and deeply spiritual moment when just as we hear the words, “and they saw Mary, and Joseph, and the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…” Father Time, aka Mike, strides across the stage, dropping the slate’s clapper entoning, “Cut! Cut! Cut! Do you know what time it is?” and the whole audience shouts, “It’s time to change the baby!” And all the babies born that year into our church family, one by one, are brought to center stage, and the most vulnerable among us lie in the manger. This year, there were five baby Jesi, counting the one who had a cold and had to sit this one out. We all have a part in the play. We are not collecting crèches. The crèche collects us, invites us to enter anew an upside down story in which the humblest places are holy, where heaven and nature sing, where the vulnerable are center stage, lifted up, recognized as God-with-us.
AB: Before the marvel of this night, each of us holds in our hearts hopes for a bright new tomorrow. And we too decree with the characters of the nativity, Let there be light! A light to surround us and encompass us, to set our worried minds at ease and to bring us hope for tomorrow.
SW: Let there be light to guide us on the way back to ourselves, and beyond, to each other. Let there be light, hand in hand with the darkness that rests and recreates and heals and hopes… Let there be light in us.
AB: Let there be light through us.
TR: Let there be light beyond us.
AB: Peace on Earth.
SW: Good will to all.
ALL: May it be so. Amen.