Nativity scenes pop up everywhere this time of year. Most are static depictions of the array of characters who attended the birth of Jesus. Living Hope Community Church in Perkasie stages an impressive re-enactment featuring live people and critters. It comes complete with a traffic jam on Route 313 that would’ve flabbergasted the original Holy Family.
I have a soft spot for nativity scenes going back to childhood. When my mom pulled the Christmas decorations from the attic in early December, it was my special job to set up our small cardboard cut-out nativity set. Each shepherd, wise man, camel or sheep fit in a designated slot, so I developed a hard-and-fast concept of who belonged around that manger.
Years later I came to understand the significance of the disparate bunch gathered in that crude barn. Shepherds were not exactly the toast of high society. Course and common, you wouldn’t want to invite those guys home to meet your parents.
The Wise Men? We place them at the birth scene even though Matthew tells us they arrived a couple years later, but let’s not split hairs. Their significance comes from the fact they were foreign heathens, royalty or not. And Mary and Joseph? Homeless might be a fair description of their plight.
So, this was the motley crew who welcomed Christ into our rough-and-tumble world.
When I started my own family, I continued the tradition of having a child set up the nativity scene at home. One year my son Charlie proudly announced he’d completed the task and wanted to show off his handiwork. He was 5 years old, and he’d done well. The porcelain figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, an angel, the barnyard animals, Wise Men and shepherds were all lined up perfectly.
But then, standing among the group as if he was performing a first-century photo bomb, was a Mr. Potato Head toy.
“Charlie,” I said, “this is really great, but I don’t recall Mr. Potato Head going to see the baby Jesus.” He smiled at me and said, “But don’t you think he would’ve been invited?”
I couldn’t argue with that kind of logic. Mr. Potato Head became a permanent nativity scene fixture in our home, an annual reminder that anyone and everyone is welcome to bask in the love of God. True, Mr. Potato Head isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but his presence at the birth of the Son of God wouldn’t be much more peculiar than shepherds or wise men or the stable itself.
In spite of all our astonishing variety, perspectives, backgrounds and beliefs, isn’t the point of a nativity scene that God includes everyone at this birthday party?
I believe so. Particularly now, when we are so politically and culturally fractured, and engaged in an ongoing screaming match instead of seeking common ground, common sense, civility and goodwill.
The nativity scene paints a picture of quiet reverence for loving each other regardless of our differences, and focusing on the power of love itself.
May we know the peace that comes from gathering together in love, and understand that someone far greater, wiser, and more loving and gracious than us is in charge of the invitations.
The Rev. David Green is pastor of Salem United Church of Christ in Doylestown. He can be found at salemstrong.org.