Growing up in Pittsburgh, one of my favorite things to do during the holiday season was visit the nativity scene at Carnegie Museum. This creche, or presepio in Italian is one of the finest nativity scenes of its kind in the world. There are over 100 figures that were handcrafted between 1700 and 1830. They set the story of the birth of Jesus in an 18th century Italian village.
The usual cast of characters is there: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, shepherds and magi, animals of all sorts, and angels which are suspended from the ceiling for dramatic effect. From there the list includes a marching band with drums and brass, a fisherman by a stream, and a vibrant marketplace full of merchants and customers.
Every year I would simply go there and stand in silence for a good 20 minutes. My eyes would scan over each detail of the creche, and my ears would listen for the stories that each figure had to tell.
This morning we did our own rendition of the nativity scene. Through word and song, we placed each figure carefully on our altar. It is just as magnificent and powerful as the massive presepio at Carnegie Museum.
What is it about this story that captures our hearts and imaginations? What is it about this story that compels us to gather year after year to tell it? I gave this some thought and I came the conclusion that this creche, this nativity scene, tells us something about God, and about us, that we desperately need to hear.
If we’re paying attention this morning, it tells us that God is not some omniscient being sitting on a throne in the place we call heaven. Instead the Almighty is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God shows up to offer safe passage to a nine months pregnant Mary and her stressed out husband, Joseph. God finds them shelter, not in the palace with the king, but in a simple stable, with all of its smells and sounds.
This reminds us that God is not afraid to meet us where we are. God journeys with us through all the uphills and downhills of life. God shelters us and protects us from a world that is often uncaring and unsympathetic to our suffering.
We need a God like this. This is why we continue to tell the story year after year. The holy family becomes our family. We see the face of Mary in our mothers, our grandmothers and the other beloved women who grace our lives. We see the face of Joseph in our fathers, our grandfathers, our uncles, and the other beloved men who grace our lives. We see the face of Christ in every baby that is born, whether that baby is ours or someone else we know. When we see the faces of people we love in the faces of the Holy Family, it reminds us that God is here for us. God is REALY here for us. This makes us feel loved and it gives us hope.
The second thing this nativity scene tells us about God is that God should not be feared, but, instead, should be worshipped and adored. It’s true the shepherds “feared and trembled” when the angels gave them the news about the birth of Jesus. But who wouldn’t be just a little afraid if a big flock of angels appeared in the sky and started singing “Glory to God in the highest”? That’s a lot of shock and awe to process. But, yet, that’s not where the shepherds meet God. Instead they meet him at the stable.
Luke tells us that their feelings of fear were replaced with amazement and wonder, as they worshipped the Christ Child. These shepherds represent common, ordinary working class people. Their presence in this nativity scene remind us that everyone is welcome to worship the Christ Child. We don’t have to be worthy. We don’t even need to bring a gift in order to be admitted entrance to the holy. We simply need to have hearts filled with wonder and a willingness to accept the invitation to come and see what God is doing in the most unlikely of places.
This may be my favorite part of the nativity scene. Sometimes people like to put barriers between us and God. They say God offers us forgiveness only if we confess our sins first. God loves us if we act right and behave like good little Christians. (Whatever that means!)
However, these shepherds remind us that God loves us just as we are. We may be a little rough around the edges, but that does not exclude us from receiving the love and grace Jesus offers us.
The third thing this nativity scene tells us about God is that the Christ Child brings out the best in all who seek him. The last figures in this creche are the wise men, the kings, the magi or magicians. These mysterious people went to considerable lengths to find Jesus. They navigated their way from distant lands, being led only by the stars. They dodged the political powers of their day who had ulterior motives in seeking out the newborn king.
Finally, they laid at Jesus’ feet the tools of their trade, the very best they had to give. Matthew tells they were “overwhelmed with joy” when they found Jesus. We hope some of that joy rubs off on us this morning as we tell the familiar story, once again.
The wisemen remind us that Jesus is our joy. He is our hope, when life seems bleak and hopeless. He is the light who shines in all the dark places of our lives, and the darkness did not, and cannot, defeat him. We offer him our very best because a love like his is life-changing and life-transforming. Once we accept the gift of grace upon grace, our lives are never the same again.
So, Friends in Christ, I wish us all the merriest of Christmases. No matter what challenges we are facing in our lives at this moment, may the story of the birth of Jesus fill our hearts with hope, love, peace and joy. AMEN
Copyright ©2017 David Eck.