An acrylic infant with large, baby-blue, cherubic eyes gleams up from where it sprawls alone on a pile of swaddling clothes with its glossy chest and abdomen exposed to the cold, dry air. A figure who clearly represents its mother (she is the only woman in the stable among a large collection of on-looking male figures) kneels stiffly on the side of the chic, rustic wooden crib. Her light, Anglo features are nowhere near as girlish as the 13-year-old she is meant to represent.
Nativity scenes, both miniature and life-size, populate fireplace mantles and winter lawns spanning the U.S. around this time of year.
In spite of occasional feelings I have that I should feel otherwise, I often find these scenes repulsive in their serenity and overwhelmingly smug “cuteness.” I recognize that if these images of God incarnate, too, were truly made in the image of God as I am and had any emotive capacities whatsoever, I’m sure they would be no less dissatisfied with me.
Nevertheless, I am reminded that I must take these images and other representations of the original Christmas story (as opposed to the 1983 rendition) as they are — no more, but also no less.
There are many features of these frequent set-ups that are commonly inaccurate, both biblically and historically. For example, the magi, with their jeweled gifts, arrived long after that first holy night (almost certainly not a silent night), as opposed to in entourage with the shepherds. In addition, the entire tone is generally profoundly inaccurate. Commercial, cute, clean … there are (entirely appropriately) none of the signs of a recent birth, none of the blood-stained garments or soiled straw and no recollection of the shearing pain and agony promised to Eve and her daughters at the beginning.
But by carefully studying little or life-size dioramas, I can observe truths that I often neglect when I have no such stage on which to let loose my imagination and wind my brain back to a random, provincial town under the jurisdiction of Rome.
It is a comment on the culture of Bethlehem that an unwed, pregnant soon-to-be mother with no family in the area to stay with could find no one willing to offer up their bed for her for the night. It is a comment on our current culture that a mother under these same conditions, who is equally homeless, would likely also have difficulty finding a welcoming home in which to take rest.
The Bible does not preclude the possibility of an assisting midwife, nor does it indicate that Mary was the only woman in the room. Nativity scenes depict this dynamic (allowing the occasional androgynous blonde angel) — no mother or sisters were there to guide her, no one who had ever or would ever give birth there to sit beside her and tell her, based on their own experience, that everything would indeed be alright.
Nativity scenes are both true and false. Some are more true to the real historical event than others in terms of construction; some are more beautifully designed (a factor that is not insignificant — we are in the image of the Designer of the universe). Whatever the vices and virtues of each individual scene, rightly considered, they can aid us in remembering the birth of the homeless Child in our homes. They can serve as a foothold on which to place our imagination, like a strong lower branch in a tree that we climb in order to climb up, higher, nearer to the star at the top.