The aforementioned nativity scene that graces our home most every Christmas season is very much a family heirloom: back in the early sixties my Grandmother Ware crafted each of the ceramic pieces by hand, and they were displayed on a dining room hutch in her house through a great many Christmases while I was growing up. After my grandparents retired, my mother and father had it for a number of years until Lisa and I were married and it was passed on to us; it’s simple but elegant crèche that not only beautifully evokes the nativity story, but which also harkens a number of very good memories; and it’s something very precious to me.
In all honesty, though, I have to confess that when I remember being very young at Christmas, this is not the crèche that I think of. It was rather one that my grandmother probably had for years before she’d made the new one, and one that she continued to set out even afterward; but down low, on the lower shelf of an end table, right where a child could sit down and take a close look at it.
Thinking back, it was nothing special: a die-pressed cardboard stable with a hole in the back for a candle bulb to light it up; and a set of miniature wax figures with paint so chipped away that you could barely tell a shepherd from a wise man (in fact, if memory serves, the angel that held the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” banner had part of a wing missing!). But none of that mattered; I remember visiting my grandparents as a young child and spending hours at a time arranging and re-arranging the figures, so to tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a wide variety of new ways.
For instance, sometimes Mary would be set off to one side, having a private conversation with the angel while Joseph kept watch over the sleeping child. For that matter, Joseph could often be found outside the stable leading the three wise men (along with their tragically three-legged camel!) inside, all the while warning them to be quiet because the baby had just now fallen asleep.
The cow, sheep and donkey would usually be placed at the edge of the manger itself; as though each one were curiously sniffing the baby that had just been born in their place of residence. And then, of course, there was always that one, motley shepherd: the bearded, tattered figure standing attentively at one corner of the manger and who was forever carrying a lamb in his arms. He always looked as though he’d just arrived from having run from the fields to see this baby, and had either acted so quickly he’d forgotten that he still had the lamb; or else, being a “good” shepherd, it was simply that he couldn’t bear to leave it behind.
It was just childhood play, I know, and evidence of an overactive imagination on my part (!)… but even now as I return to the crèche yet again I cannot help but wonder about all those who were “round about the manger” on that silent, holy night long ago; speculating as to what each one must have been thinking and feeling amid the singular experience of being present as the divine came to earth in the guise of a child; and wondering, however wistfully, how I might have responded had I been there myself.
Actually, scripture gives us relatively little insight into such matters: it suggests that Mary “pondered” these things in her heart, while the always stalwart Joseph immediately appears focused on caring for his new wife and adopted son; for me, their visage of grace and serenity have always represented for me the “calm and bright” quality of Christmas and of God’s gift of a Savior, in the same way the arrival of the Wise Men, along with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, bring something of a gravitas to the event as they pay homage to this one who is born the “king of the Jews.” The shepherds, on the other hand, seem to be the ones who are filled to overflowing the utter joy of “this thing that has taken place;” and why wouldn’t they be? After having heard such good news on a cosmic scale, all accompanied by a chorus of the heavenly host; and then to come face to face with this crying newborn – in a barn, of all places (!) – who is, in fact, “the Messiah, the Lord;” well, it had to have been, to say the very least, overwhelming. Luke’s gospel tells us that when the shepherds returned to their flocks, they were “glorifying and praising God for all that they heard and seen,” and I suspect that was putting it mildly; after all, when you’ve just seen the whole world change right before your very eyes it’s pretty unlikely you’ll even begin to keep quiet about it!
I know that had I been there I could never have been as calm and collected as how we usually depict Mary and Joseph; my tendency would have been to fret and stew over the minutiae of taking care of a newborn, and would have spent most of my time that night tending to a lantern or shooing the animals away from Jesus! And I’m sure that I possess neither the wisdom nor the political savvy of the magi as they ultimately outwitted Herod in their quest to find, and then to kneel before, the child. No, my place at the manger would surely have been among that motley assortment of shepherds; and yes, I would have been the one with the lamb still in my arms. But not, I hasten to add, because I’d have been that attentive to the well-being of the sheep; but rather because having heard the glory of the angels’ song and then rushing to get to Bethlehem to see it for myself I would simply been too distracted, too excited, and frankly, too “slack jawed and buggy eyed” to pay attention to anything else!
Actually, it strikes me that as Christmas 2014 draws near, you and I would still do well to be so overwhelmed by God’s gift of a Savior that everything else around us – not only the noise and chaos of the world’s celebration, but the weight of its many concerns and struggles as well – pales in comparison; for this will be a sign that in every way that matters Christ is born in us today and will be with us at Christmas and always.
Truly, may our prayer for this season be that God’s vision of peace on earth and goodwill amongst those he loves truly come in its fullness; and may we know it’s true because it will have already unfolded in each one of us who live as shepherds in search of a stable.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry