[Listen to Audio] Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Nativity Scenes. Artisans fashion the holy family from ceramic or wood or stone. Mass-produced plastic figures illuminate front yards. A nativity scene constructed from bacon showed up on my Facebook news feed.
Oxen and donkeys, sheep and cattle fill out the traditional cast of characters. Lately I’ve seen dinosaurs, zombies, Star Wars figures, and hipsters on Segways paying a visit to baby Jesus. Live Nativity Scenes have grown in popularity, especially those designed to provide a drive-through experience.
It probably goes without saying that none of this shows up in the pages of the Bible. Luke tells us only that there were no vacancies in the Bethlehem motels and that Jesus’ first crib was a feed trough for barnyard animals. Our imagination has filled in the rest.
At this point you might be expecting me to indulge in a bit of cynicism or scholarly snobbery. But nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, God created us with imaginations. And we need to use our imaginations to see the infinite, omnipotent God in a chubby baby wrapped in tattered rags.
St. Francis gave us the very first Nativity Scene in 1223. Pope Honorious III granted him permission to fill a feed trough with straw and to place it in a cave along with an ox and a donkey. Francis invited the villagers of Grecio, Italy, to look at the scene while he preached about the babe of Bethlehem.
In other words, Francis urged the congregation to use not only their senses and their intellect but also their imagination to experience the meaning of Jesus’ birth.
I invite you to do something similar. Come with your mind’s eye to the manger as one of the shepherds. An angelic messenger has sent you this night to encounter God in a new and unlikely way. In the weak and vulnerable flesh of an infant.
Francis believed that the Nativity shows us most clearly who God is and who we are. Franciscan theologians have been influenced by this insight ever since. As a result, they offer us a minority but still orthodox view of what God is doing in the manger.
Theologians from various traditions have asked the same question to uncover the Nativity’s meaning: Why did God become a human being?
Many Catholic and Protestant thinkers alike have seen Jesus as God’s Plan B. God sent Jesus to die for our sins. Had Adam and Eve never eaten the forbidden fruit, there would have been no Jesus. Grace enters the universe as a repair kit.
The Franciscans acknowledge that our sins did Jesus in. But Franciscan theologians like John Duns Scotus insist that Jesus was not part of some Plan B. When God decided to bring the world into being, Jesus was God’s very first thought. Grace governs the creation from its inception.
God created each rosebush, aardvark, and proton one at a time. Each dog, each star, and each human being is radically unique. No one and nothing is interchangeable. Every creature in this vast universe is completely irreplaceable.
God made each being to love. That includes each and every one of us fragile, coarse, tender, wounded, glorious human beings.
To love means to draw near. To get so close that you become one.
In Jesus, the divine and the human are so intimately woven together as to be inseparable. That has been God’s aim from all of eternity. And it is in Jesus that we see who we truly are as human beings: The one who God loves.
No one on this planet is a mistake. No one is disposable. God created each of us to be one with us.
While that sounds lovely for most of us, a few will be resistant. They will prefer to go their own way. But even for those of us who hear Good News in the manger, there’s a hitch.
Sure, in Christ we become one with God (theologians call that atonement or at-one-ment). But by being one with God in Christ, we become one with everybody that God loves. And that includes some people we’ve been keeping at arm’s length.
We’ve grown accustomed to dividing the world into black and white, winner and loser, gay and straight, rural and urban, rich and poor. These days we’ve grown increasingly suspicious of people who speak languages other than our own or who dress in foreign garb. Our political differences have at times erupted into physical violence.
The challenge for us, now that we have been to the manger, is to live the truth we’ve found there. Everyone we meet is the person God loves. In all their breathtaking otherness and bewildering uniqueness.
God’s love draws us toward unity with each other. This is the work of the Incarnation. And that work continues in us.