How the Manger Puts Us on Level Ground
I told you last week that I wasn’t ready for Christmas. I still hadn’t decorated. After I wrote those words, I finally pulled our Christmas tub off the top closet shelf and opened it. I gingerly unwrapped our nativity sets and was flooded with the reasons why it is worth it to dig out the decorations that I’m going to have to put away in a dozen days.
Our Christmas décor consists of some inherited ornaments, a few from the dollar store, a beloved strand of imitation red berries, and four nativity sets. It’s the nativity sets that draw me in each time I see them. All four of them are displayed in our living room, tucked into the overflowing books shelves and replacing whatever was on our small coffee tables. The nativity sets were designed to remind me of good news, and this year they remind me of the equalizing of Christmas. The divine baby levels us and should draw us towards one another.
All Eyes on Him
Each of the nativity scenes, or crèches if you’d rather, hails from a different country. The first came from Haiti with dark sticks representing the shepherds and Joseph. The Magi have husk gifts to offer. The animals are indistinguishable, but the symbolism of a place of poverty is still there. The detail of each figure evokes empathy with the journey of the new family and worshippers, all pointing their bodies towards the baby.
The second is from Uganda. The wooden figures are carved beautifully with tall faces and long bodies, all focused on the manger child. Mary and Joseph are kneeling next to a lone shepherd come to meet the child while the three oversized stable animals look on.
The third came from Guatemala. The short ceramics are covered with bright fabric that proves again their love of color. Again, the half circle centers on the promised baby.
The final set is the nativity my husband has had since he was a small child. The very white face of Mary reveals the artistic license. The burnt hole in the stable roof reveals my husband’s inclination for candlelight when he was little. The wise men are set out significantly away from the baby, since from a child he has insisted on biblical consistency for the nativity sets. (The Magi didn’t arrive until multiple years after Christ was born.) As expected, the figures are designed to point the onlookers towards the manger at the heart of the scene.
Worship and Unity
It’s the variance of the portrayed birth scene that convicts me. Yet, it is also the similarity. In each, all eyes are on Christ. In each, the people are depicted with great contrast, yet they are there to kneel, seek, and worship the God-become-man. They are all in desperate need for this grace. That is the great equalizer of Christmas. It levels us, globally. We are all just people who urgently required a Savior to come. Or as Athanasius put it in his treatise On the Incarnation:
For of His becoming Incarnate we were the object, and for our salvation He dealt so lovingly as to appear and be born even in a human body.
Our global need was for God to come. God did not come to the United States. He wasn’t born in my hometown, cradled in the woods of Oregon. Instead, he came to the world in a Middle Eastern village to a teenage girl and surprised groom without privilege but with faith.
Christmas is about the incarnation, about God coming to those of us who are other than him. He came because of our poverty and helplessness. Thus, the incarnation reminds us of our equal footing. It reminds us of the good news that came for all people, no matter where they make their home on the face of the earth
So, this may not sound very revolutionary. The words can sound cliché, even as I see them written on the page. Of course, Jesus coming to earth is good news for all people, but the implications are great. If we are all equal, if we are unified by the worship of Christ, then we should move towards one another. Christmas pushes us towards people as we center around the birth of Jesus.
Now let’s be honest, sometimes I have a hard time walking across the street to greet and reach out. Yet, the incarnation calls us across cultures, social divides, and racial lines. The incarnation should lower barriers between us as the figures from the different countries all look at the Christchild. They all look with fierce hope at the One who came. So it should prompt me to reach out to others unlike me join hands with them around Hope or to point them to him. The incarnation should move us to empathy towards others and unity within our distinct lives, for God moved towards us.
But does such empathy extend to those in my city who I naturally do not understand? To those it is hard for me to love? Even those within my own family? What about those across the world? To do this, I need to model my attitude after the stance of nativity figures—moving my eyes from myself to Christ with my arms welcoming those who gather next to me. Then, I need to move towards others with invitations, listening, introductions, and love.
May we see the incarnation and seek out those very different than us, because God became man. He came to people leveled in their poverty for salvation. And now that he has come, we stand next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, knees all bent to the One who came.
May it open our eyes and move our feet to love well, because God became man.
Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!