When my daughter, Emily, was young, Christmas brought no greater joy than the emergence of an old nativity, passed to me from my grandparents. I didn’t receive the set in some great bequeath. Rather, my father or uncle found it when, following their deaths, we set about cleaning out their home. Whoever found it likely offered it to the first grandchild they saw. It wasn’t particularly fancy and certainly wouldn’t be valuable, coming from Sears sometime in the early 1980s. In fact, my grandfather, a carpenter and tinkerer by nature, found it plain enough that he added elements; a small hay loft of popsicle sticks, an elevated platform for the crèche made from small round sticks. The figures, sheep and cow, shepherds, and holy family, were ceramic, obviously formed in a mold rather than by hand. Still, it provided good memories, and Emily, at two, three and four, always squealed with delight at the living room addition of what she perceived as a new dollhouse a full month ahead of Santa’s visit.
Then, one dark December day, I think when Emily was four, I walked into the living room and found the nativity in shambles, characters laid upon their side, cow and sheep on the crèche platform, the Christ child apparently whisked to a different table by the boy’s mother. Upon closer examination, I found a catastrophic casualty of whatever drama had befallen the sacred scene. In what must have been a sad and tragic story conceived by Emily, Joseph had lost his head, literally. A clean break of the ceramic left him entirely decapitated.
I suppose I experienced chagrin. I steeped the set with nostalgia. It pulled forth happy memories, and I was raised with clear instructions not to touch it or any other nativity. It was, after all, meant for reverence and admiration. But, when it came to Emily, I have to admit that I probably participated. At the very least, I laid the groundwork for the crime. I led her to believe that creating scenes with the figures could be great fun. I had, after all, spent many evenings at Emily’s side, generating new and ever more salacious stories for Mary, Joseph and the rest. Forgive me. My daughter found our stories hilarious, and I relished her laughter. That Joseph lost his head comprised unfortunate collateral damage to what seemed a greater and more enjoyable mission.
Maybe I should have formed her to hold such fragile displays in more regard. Maybe I should have taught her, as I was taught, as so many were taught, that the holy family and nativities and Christmas displays of religious significance are to be respected and revered and if handled at all, done so with great care. But, when I consider that lesson, I wonder if there aren’t temptations associated with it. Perhaps you think that strange. After all, we lack such a degree of reverence in our day and age. In church big and small, I’ve heard the complaints. “It seems like no one fears God anymore.” Or, “Is there no reverence for anything sacred anymore?” And, I admit to holding a degree of sympathy.
At the same time, reverence, especially this time of year, might well create all the wrong responses. We associate reverence with fear, silence, awe and inaction. Don’t get me wrong. I think it natural and appropriate to experience awe when confronting Christ’s advent. The Gospels, especially Luke, are full of people who, when faced with Christ’s birth directly, expressed some level of fear. Zechariah even went quiet for a good while. But, in every single instance of fear, some messenger from God made clear the same repeated refrain, “Do not be afraid.”
The angel appears to the shepherds and a multitude of heavenly host begin to sing. The shepherds, dirty boys, most likely the dregs of society, rough and crude, are presented with what the angel claims as “good news of great joy.” Given the scene, they should be excused for a little anxiety. Yet, the angel was quick to tell them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
As I read that passage and think of poor, headless Joseph and my daughter’s belief that the nativity was a toy, the message takes on a new thrust. The angels certainly brought good news, but we miss something important if we skip the fact that the angel gave instructions for finding the child. They don’t explicitly tell the shepherds to go find him, but they might as well have. They make clear just where to go and the shepherds curiously set out to do just that. The angel might as well have set out a nativity for a creative and precocious toddler. The angel might as well have invited the shepherds to interact with the holy family.
Reverence, if unchecked, leaves us fearful, silent and austere. Imagine if the message to the shepherds had been, “See—I am brining you good news of great joy for all the people: today a savior is born, but you must beware of looking upon him and his family. If you come across them, you may look, but do not touch, do not interact. They must be handled with care. They must be revered.”
I’m not sure that works. Today, as much as any time in history, the world cries out for courage. We long for shouts of acclimation and joyful abundance. Too many refugees wander the globe homeless, utterly destroyed. War has ravaged too many countries. People of color still suffer the insult and indignity of racism and white privilege. Their lives remain constantly threatened. Our American population groans under the weight of opioid addiction. Gender bias, sexual harassment and worse sexual assault leave us broken and ashamed. Too many seem depressed or lonely or simply numb with loss.
I admit to finding 2016 and 2017 a struggle even amidst general prosperity. And, maybe I speak alone, but the last thing I want is to stand, jaw agape, staring at the glory of God, unable to interact, forced to encounter it on someone else’s terms, disallowed from touching, feeling it in my hands. I need, and maybe the world needs, less reverence and a little more laughter, more play, more creativity and joy, more interaction, even at the risk that we somehow break something that ought not be broken.
Of course, we revere the things of God. Perhaps we should. We fear God and certainly we should. We stand in awe and feel insufficient and wanting and ashamed and cowardly and maybe we should take care. We do, after all, tend to break to many things. But, in the silence of Christmas Even, in the little story about the ridiculously cruel birth of the Savior, the angel’s words to the shepherds ring true as an invitation, a taunt even, a call for a response that is anything but careful. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” That a baby has been born calls out for us to want to hold it, to interact and even play with it. May that sort of invitation be our greatest gift this Christmas.
Among those to whom Santa Claus has been generous, appear two approaches to the traditional task of Christmas morning. Some, take it slowly. They unwrap one gift at a time, one person at a time, allowing the others to see the expression on the face of the recipient, the joy (and hopefully not the disappointment). They are orderly and tear the paper gently, preserving it for future use perhaps. The careful ones call us to reverence and respect for the giving and receiving of gifts.
Then, there is the approach that my brother and I employed as children. We would wake early, always dragging my parents from slumber well before they preferred to get up. Our family regularly rose before 6, but on Christmas morning, we somehow found the capacity to rouse ourselves even earlier. We would make our way downstairs, the tree left lit through the night. We stood in awe of the gifts, always more than we deserved, always well-wrapped and stacked. And, when my parents and grandparents who always visited and slept in the guestroom, made their way to couch and chair, an adult, ordinarily my father or mother, would offer the signal. We employed no order, no method, except that of glee, and we began to tear, to explore and reveal. At some point, our consciences would surely get the better of our greed and we would aid my mother in handing out gifts to others, only to return to our own and continue the carnage. Paper littered the floor, but we laughed and relished the newness of all we received.
I’m not sure there’s anything inherently right or wrong with either approach. I’m sure we could be criticized for greed and gluttony. But, for 2018, my great hope for the world is that Christians receive the story of Christ’s coming with the second approach. To tear into it, to delight in its joy, to feel no fear, experience no silence, even for a moment, might do us good, might push us forward in courage, in hope, in laughter and joy.
For the story, the nativity, need not be handled with care, and if a ceramic Joseph happens to lose his head, we can rest easy that all will be mended in the end, that all will be made right and whole and complete.