Crèche - Monday Musing, December 27, 2021
Crèche. In nearly every home you will find a crèche. It goes without saying that the essential characters in a crèche include Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, at the very least. But also included are animals, shepherds, wise men, and perhaps an angel. I have seen a wide variety of representations of the Nativity scene. In a conversation I had with someone recently, I mentioned that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Bangor, Maine holds a crèche exhibit each year where over 500 crèches depicting the birth of Jesus are on public display. I indicated that perhaps – on the other side of COVID – we might do something similar (although not with as many crèches!).
Many churches have rituals for displaying their crèche. The manger bed is empty until Christmas Eve, the shepherds don’t show up before Jesus, and the Wise Men don’t arrive until Epiphany. Crèche figurines are moved from one window sill to another in the sanctuary, getting closer and closer as the narrative of Jesus’ birth unfolds in the assigned scripture readings. Theologically, it makes sense that the crèche is devoid of human figurines during the weeks of Advent as we wait in anticipation of the coming of Jesus’ birth.
I have a confession to make – the crèche in our home contains all the figurines of the Nativity scene once it is displayed. I know, the theology police may have something to say about this! Theologically correct or not, I prefer to reflect and meditate on the Nativity that fully depicts the entire story of Jesus’ birth.
Since my visits to The Holy Land, I am not convinced that any crèche I have seen accurately depicts the real scene of Jesus’ birthplace. The idea of a pretty, three-sided wooden barn with perfect figurines placed just so looks nice, but is it historically accurate? The well-known expression, “Never let the facts get in the way of telling a good story” comes to mind. The archeological remains of a first-century house in Bethlehem paint a far different picture of the actual Nativity than a pretty-looking wooden crèche.
In the story of Jesus’ birth, we read that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger (Luke 2:7). Mangers are animal feeding troughs, and barns are where you would expect to find them, right? But in the ancient world, as well as in primitive modern cultures, mangers are also found within the house itself – and animals were regularly kept in homes at night. Also, ancient homes (and feeding troughs) would have been made from stone, not wood. Does your crèche depict a stone Nativity scene? I didn’t think so, and neither does mine!
Does it matter that the “facts” of our crèche don’t square with the story of Jesus’ birth? I have heard a wise minister say, “I don’t know if it happened that way, but I know it’s true.” Our crèche tells us many miraculous stories – virgin birth, angelic appearances, and guiding stars. While the factual depictions in our crèche may not square with the actual details, the importance is the overall event that it portrays. The depiction of Jesus Christ, the baby, is a special and miraculous occurrence, but it also tells a greater story – the central Christmas narrative is the incarnation (the act of being made flesh) of Christ. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).
Some might say that how we depict the birth of Jesus is less important than the necessity of telling the story. Chapin Garner writes, “Christianity is not a monument to be admired but a movement to be advanced. The moment we stop planting is the time when the seasons of harvest have passed. For the church of Jesus Christ to be a vibrant and exciting place, there must always be room to grow.”
So whether your crèche is empty or fully displayed, whether the figurines are painted porcelain or hand-crafted olive wood, use your crèche to tell the stories of our faith. See you in church!