A Nativity Metaphor
One of the things that I love about Christmas time is the varied opportunities to set up nativity scenes with my Bug. He has loved them since he was less than a year old and with fascination would reach towards the animals until one was handed to him. At this point in my life I have three incomplete sets of nativity pieces that with much laughter and smiles are carefully set up next to each other. Every year, the different pieces end up moving around the room as Joseph may be dragged off by a cat or Bug's service dog may casually pick one up when we are not looking and chew it to bits... or they even move when we use the pieces to recreate stories. These stories can be the birth of Christ as told in the Gospel of Luke or can become as varied as the barn scene in "The Last Battle" by C.S. Lewis. Sometimes, we just play farm and feed and tend to the animals that come with these nativity sets- always cows and sheep, but sometimes donkeys, horses, and even camels. Over the years I have worked pretty hard to make sure that my son understands that the nativity story with the animals is a tradition and is fun, but is very much not what the scriptures describe the events of the birth of Christ to be. The nativity tradition, while beautiful and fun, is not scriptural and in some ways seems to take away from the importance and the struggle of the event itself that we Christians celebrate - the birth of our Savior.
This year after Thanksgiving, I happily brought out the nativity sets for setting up. As usual, Bug and I sat down and placed them in the places we wanted. We added real hay and shavings to one of the stables and it always feels wonderful to sit back and look at the different groups. The sets are quite easy to tell apart as one is a Fisher Price plastic set, a hand carved wood set and a paper mache set that was hand painted for me by the young women of my branch a few years ago. I noticed this year that as the pieces began to be moved and scattered around the house, my son clearly had a very different image in his mind as he put them back and by the time that Christmas Day arrived, I had a very different nativity scene to view. So at a terribly early hour of the morning, while everyone else opened presents, I found my eyes and my thoughts drawn back towards the nativity scene in front of me. What I saw was three small smiling babies in the center of a large group which was then surrounded by animals and then the people. In some ways it looked a bit like how I feel about the sun.... the edges are easily seen but looking at the center is too bright, too hard.... too much. After the required present opening and fun, I chatted with Bug about the nativity and some of the same things that I saw as I looked down were emotions and ideas that he had been trying in a small way to suggest. Here are our thoughts:
1. How people picture the Savior can vary greatly on their perspective. His race, skin color, culture, facial expressions, etc... are things that are developed created by each of us and our religious culture. While every single person may see the Savior, his life, and his commandments differently, for those who celebrate his birth and life, we tend to see him as the center of our heart- the nucleus of our living soul. This is where Jesus Christ should be - in our minds and hearts, our thoughts and hopes. In essence, he should be our center and our life should revolve around him and our relationship with him.
2. The animals were set around him as a protection. Animals are pure and live the lives that they have been set to lead on this earth. They are here to live, to teach us, to sometimes feed us and to help us to recognize the divine all around us. As such, most animals will likely recognize the Christ in the flesh before we human beings shall and as each creature recognizes its spiritual heart, they will surround him in joy and protect him from harm.
3. People are on the outside of the circle as we are frail, easily distracted and of skewed perspectives. When we look at pictures of Christ with his mother and images that celebrate his birth, for many the joy is in the rest of the image behind the holy child... the cow in the next stall, the sheep standing next to a shepherd, the donkey tied up nearby. When we perform the nativity story in plays, each of the actors in the nativity are likely to play their character to the hilt and in most traditional nativities, they are more animals than people. So the majority of the action comes from the animals as well as the majority of the space taken up. As I discovered to my cost last year, telling a friend that having animals in a Nativity scene isn't scriptural can seriously get you gossiped and talked about even when the comment was mentioned in a closed door, private meeting. I was really surprised at how offended someone could get over the idea that Christ wasn't surrounded from his first earthly breath with joyous, happy livestock crowding in toward the manger for a better look. As Bug told me, "We see what we want to see, animals see what is there."
I look back a week later on this experience and find myself pretty pleased and tearful. I am grateful for an amazing and thoughtful child who is kind and empathetic and good-hearted. I am grateful that even with some of his learning challenges, Bug is aware of how to live a good life and is able to understand many human frailties and stumbling blocks. He also seems to understand where the Savior should be in our lives... in our hearts, the focus.... the center of our being. This is a Christmas gift I will never forget and always be grateful for. Tomorrow, my son will be 14 years old. I look forward to celebrating his birthday with him and eating cake. I am thankful for the gifts he has given me... especially these thoughts. Love you Bug. :)