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The Naked Nativity Scene

Updated on January 4, 2011

The Naked Nativity Scene

I hate Nativity scenes. I really do. It’s not The Nativity I hate, it’s Nativity scenes.

Take a look at any Nativity scene and tell me what you see. There’s Baby Jesus, looking angelic, probably with a halo over His head. There’s Joseph and Mary, looking on in wonder and also likely crowned with Holy auras. There are the Shepherds and the Wise Men, representing the poor and the rich of this world coming to Jesus, each looking fresh and without any hint of weariness from their respective journeys. There are the animals, behaving gently out of reverence instead of acting like animals. And of course, there is the Angel, announcing to the world that Christ is born, acting the way we think any angel would act.

Now, look at the scene again. Everyone and everything looks happy and holy, just the way we imagine it would have been on that first Christmas night. Even in our Christmas plays we see it portrayed- no pain, no suffering, no hint that there’s a problem in the world. There’s no emotion, no doubt, no second-guessing, no uncertainty and no regrets. Everything is perfect, perfect, perfect and everyone is happy, happy, happy. And that’s why I hate Nativity Scenes, because they are plastic and false, because they lack feeling and realism, because they are as phony as an artificial tree and as satisfying as an empty stocking.

Nativity scenes have become a cheap substitute for The Nativity, allowing us to give a politically-correct nod to Jesus in a comfortable, non-confrontational Christmas of our own making. There is nothing in a Nativity scene to shock us, confront us, or to make us think of our relationship to that tiny baby-shaped figurine in a model manger. You might find a Nativity scene that proclaims “Peace on Earth“, or one molded to included the words of John 3:16,  but you will certainly never find one proclaiming the words of John 3:18. No Nativity scene ever presses us to make a decision about Jesus, about sin, about our eternity, or about our here and now. Indeed, Nativity scenes are designed to be void of any moral, ethical, or spiritual concerns. There is no conflict whatsoever in a Nativity scene. Everyone and everything, including us,  is OK.  

It is the sanitized, “I’m OK, You’re OK, Everyone’s OK” look of a Nativity scene that I hate, simply because it’s a lie. The Nativity is a story about just how NOT OK we really are, and how God made it possible for us to be OK with Him, through the giving of His Son as a sacrifice for our sins. Furthermore, The Nativity is a story about real people in a real situation with real human thoughts and feelings and facing the greatest test of faith in their lives. I don’t believe for one moment that they are at all happy, certain, or sure of themselves, because if we are all honest, none of us would be. So, let’s take a moment to peel back the layers of plastic, painted-on happiness and look beneath at the naked Nativity Scene. What would we see if a Nativity Scene really reflected The Nativity?

Let’s start with Mary, a young girl, newly married, about to give birth to a child that is not her husband’s. Her reputation is shot, and her family and friends think she’s crazy, since she claims her child to be the Son of God. She herself has often questioned her own memory and her own sanity. Come now, did she really have a supernatural encounter where God, the Supreme Being on all beings, who somehow had some sort of spiritual, metaphysical, sexual relationship with her and impregnated her? Caught up in the midst of birth pains, she must have wondered again if she had imagined it all. It certainly feels like a normal birth. She is hot and sweaty. She hurts. There’s blood. And why her? Why here, in this dirty animal den? And why must Joseph bear all this for her? Surely she must be crazy. Surely this must be God’s punishment. She tries to hold on to her faith, but as her pain increases, she wonders what the future will hold for her and her baby. Still, in her heart of hearts, she knows what she knows. It must be true. It has to be true. It’s all she has to hold on to.

Then there’s Joseph, feeling emasculated and cut off from his bride. Yes, he loves Mary, but he was so angry and hurt when he found out about the baby, and he was ready to move on without her. If he himself had not been visited by an angel, he would not be here now. All of his friends and family either think that he is crazy for marrying an unfaithful woman or that he really is the father of the baby and is too ashamed to admit it. Maybe he too went mental upon finding out his beloved was carrying a “special” baby. Maybe he just imagined it all to help him cope with the betrayal. He looks at Mary and wonders, “Was it all a lie? Did she betray me? Is she just using me to hide her own disgrace?” He’s done this before when she did not see, and he does it once more as the child is placed in his arms. There is no halo around the child’s head, no sign of this being anything more than just a baby - a human baby. But then as now, he remembers the strange visit of the angel. “No, it must have been real. This must be right. Still, what is to become of us? How am I supposed to raise this child? Who will I say He is?”

The cave is silent now, save for the sounds of animals stirred from sleep by the trauma of human birth. The baby lies sleeping. All around are unclean piles of straw and their foul contents. The stench is anything but pleasant. The animals show little interest in the humans, but they are somewhat miffed over the appropriation of their feeding trough. As Joseph settles in to watch over the child, the reality of his situation begins to set in. Here, supposedly, is the Son of God, conceived out of wedlock, born in a cave, and lying in a manger. None of this makes sense. Would God allow His Son to be born under such questionable circumstances? What will we tell the neighbors? What will we tell our families? Who will we say this child is?

A stirring at the cave entrance and the rush of voices jolt Joseph from his thoughts. The animals, their sleep once again disturbed by humans, begin to move about, their many voices both clashing and collaborating to announce their displeasure at their disturbance. Several men run into the cave and stop. They have wild looks in their eyes, like madmen. They are panting, disheveled, and breathing heavy. They carry shepherd’s staffs, heavy sticks that can easily injure or kill. Mary awakes just in time for Joseph to hand her the child as he dives to pick up his own staff, ready to defend his family from a likely band of robbers.

Then, the men fall down upon their knees and bow. Joseph holds his staff at the ready, not sure of what trickery these men are planning. One of the men rises up and announces that they have come by the order of an angel. A chill runs down Joseph’s back and he looks at Mary, who is equally shocked by what she hears. The men tell a story of seeing a multitude of angels in the sky over Bethlehem, of the fear that paralyzed them at such a sight, and of hearing an angel proclaim the birth of the Messiah. The Messiah, the angel said, would be found wrapped in strips of cloth and would be lying in a manger. The men had searched through the city, driven by their desire to see the Messiah and their own need to prove their sanity. Enduring the taunts of the townsfolk and the curses of those they had aroused at such a late hour, they continued to look in every cave and stable they could find. And now, they knew that they had not been dreaming. They knew that they were not crazy, for here was the child, just as the angel had said.  

The moments that followed were consumed by the thoughts of all those who worshipped in the cave that night. For Mary and Joseph, God had again confirmed that they were not crazy, and now He had also confirmed that they were not alone. Their experience was now shared by outsiders, other people who had a supernatural encounter with God. And the baby, this very human looking baby, was really the Messiah, the Savior of the world. For the shepherds, they too found comfort in the fact that they also were not alone. God had included them in the Christmas story by special invitation. They were no longer outsiders, for they had met the Messiah. What would become of them no one knew, but for them, at that one moment, God became real, more real than He had ever been. And no one’s life can ever be the same once God becomes real to them.

The rest of this not-so-silent night provided very little rest, as the shepherds went out telling others of their angelic encounter and of finding the Messiah. Through the darkness, Joseph could hear the movement of people approaching and departing the cave’s entrance. Every once in a while he could make out the forms of people, one here, two there. And ever so often he could the hear the laughter and the sneers. But mostly, people just came and stood and looked. Joseph assumed that they must also be wondering, pondering, trying to decided what they would do with the tale of the shepherds, trying to decide what they would do about this baby. The shepherd’s story had humored some, enraged others, and aroused curiosity in many. As the parade of people slowly dwindled, only God knew what was in their hearts. But as Jacob had wrestled with an angel in the days of old, so would many wrestle that night with the question of just who was this child.

Of the Wise Men there is much controversy. It is believed by most scholars that they were not at The Nativity, but came some three years later. This would actually make sense to the life of Joseph and Mary. The child, now three years old, showed no special talents towards deity, and as the burden of everyday toil took its toll, it must have been easy to once again question the events of that Holy Night. Once more, God brought a group of weary dust covered travelers to Joseph and Mary to confirm and strengthen their faith. The Wise Men, by virtue of their three-year journey, proved once more the unique nature of the baby Jesus. They had left everything behind. Their world would not be the same as it was when they left it, for their return trip would require another three years to make. Imagine how much your world would change if you were gone for six years. Surely they must have doubted from time to time. How many times were they tempted to turn back? How many tragedies befell them along the way? They must have counted the cost many times. Still, these men believed in God enough to not only make the trip, but to bring gifts that would help the family on their flight to Egypt when King Herod decided to try to kill the child. No one else, even among the Jews, had shown so much faith.

So, what do we see now when we look at the naked Nativity scene? We see Mary, concerned for herself  and her child’s future. We see Joseph, full of fear and uncertainty. We see shepherds who will be ridiculed for their story for the rest of their lives, even though they know the truth. We see animals just being animals. We hear the sounds and imagine the smells of an imperfect manger in a stinky old cave. We see the Wise Men, still far off in the distance, riding once more under the hot sun, unwavering in spite of what every mile costs them. We see angels watching over it all.

But most of all, we see the Child in the center of it all, right where He should be, in the midst of all of our doubts, our fears, the uncertainties of life, in the middle of our hopes, our worries, our imperfections, our sins and our dreams for something that makes a real difference. Then as now, Jesus wants to be at the center of your life, imperfect and sinful as it may be. He wants to give you peace. So, when you look at your Nativity scene this Christmas, or when you get ready to pack it all away for another year, take a moment to really look at each piece, to imagine what each person must have felt and what each person sacrificed to gaze upon the Prince of Peace. And when you get to Baby Jesus, ask yourself, “What have I given to Jesus this year? Who do I say this Child is?”

My prayer for you is that you know Him as Savior, as Lord, and as your Prince of Peace.  

Merry Christmas!

Paw-Paw John Kelly


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