Creche and Love

I have always been fascinated by creches. My childhood home had its own creche which was part of our Christmas decorations. Among my earliest memories is reenacting the nativity story as I choreographed Joseph and Mary with the donkey; the Christ Child in the manger surrounded by sheep and a cow; the shepherds bowing in reverent worship; the Magi with their camels bringing their gifts; and the angel who hovered above the stable. The Baby Jesus was a separate piece of porcelain who could be placed in (and removed from) the manger. At the tender age of four, I could cradle that holy Infant, the Incarnation of the Creator of the universe, in the palm of my hand. For me, that creche was a sacrament revealing the mystery of the ages. 

The Wabash Christian Church which I pastored for 10½ years has a long tradition of presenting a “living creche” with all the characters (including animals) for the local community each Christmas season. The tradition of a living creche was begun by St. Francis who wanted the peasants of his day to know the love of God in a very intimate and profound way. Francis reasoned that they could approach God more easily in a tiny baby than in the regal and overpowering images found in most cathedrals and presented in most sermons. So, outside of the Italian town of Greccio in December of 1223, he staged the first living creche where anyone could cradle the Creator of the universe in their arms and be touched by God in a way that tugged at the heart and allowed that person to feel a deep connection to the Divine.

One of the most interesting creches I have ever seen has a manger in the form of a cross. The hands and arms of the Christ Child are in the horizontal beam while the head, body, legs, and feet occupy the vertical beam. I assume that the creator of that manger wanted to remind us of the danger of “Baby Jesus” theology which tends toward a sentimental and shallow understanding of the birth narratives in the New Testament. Only two Gospels have nativity stories about Jesus: Luke and Matthew. The Gospels of Mark and John never mention Jesus’ birth. Neither does Paul. However, neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth suggests a sentimental, naïve, shallow understanding of Jesus’ nativity. Luke reflects the cruel dictates of an evil Roman Empire as Caesar Augustus demands his oppressive census; the humble setting of Jesus’ birth as he is placed in a feed trough; the adoration of the shepherds who were considered suspect and unclean by the religious authorities; and the later sacrifice brought to the Temple for Jesus’ dedication. The Law required the sacrifice of a lamb and a dove. Provision was made for the very poor who could substitute another bird for the lamb. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary, being poor, brought two birds. The Gospel writer also quotes the words which the devout and righteous Simeon spoke during that same temple visit: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, and a sword will pierce through your (Mary’s) soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke views Jesus’ birth as the beginning of a sifting process which was required for justice and peace to come into this world. Early on he anticipates the necessary choices we must make as we choose to follow or reject Jesus and his way.

Matthew foreshadows the death of Jesus as he recalls mad King Herod ordering the murder of all Jewish males under the age of two within the Bethlehem vicinity. Jesus’ birth may have brought great joy to Mary and Joseph, but the coming of God’s unconditional love and shalom in Jesus also brought the tears of Rachel (the symbolic mother of Israel) with the murder of the innocents. The ruling status quo cannot accept a “new king” whose agenda is based on justice and compassion. That is a part of the Nativity story we would prefer to forget. 

The manger shaped in a cross reminds us of that well known verse in John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world.” Such love provides the only ultimate hope for our world and for each of us. But from the very beginning of all four Gospels, we are warned that much of our world is at violent odds with such indiscriminate love. We still are not ready for  the radical message that there is no “us and them” in the heart of God.  There are only those loved eternally by God. Such a revelation, for all our sentimental talk to the contrary, continues to be unwelcomed in our contemporary world. Caesars still cruelly dictate.  Herods still plot and kill. And too much religion still colludes and condemns. 

The cuddly Baby in the manger begins an Incarnation of the Eternal Word which will be both healing and dividing. This Baby will bring the long-awaited shalom the world so desperately needs. But that blessing comes only with a costly investment on the part of God—an investment symbolized by a manger and a cross—an investment continued by those in whose hearts the Christ Child has truly been born. 

There are times when we need to hold the Christ Child in the palm of our hands and join St Francis in joyful wonderment at the Creator of the universe who come to us in such a humble and unassuming way. And there are times when we need to remember that this Baby grew into an adult whose life and message resulted in an ignominious death. A soft, cuddly Jesus would have never ended up on a cross. Perceptive readers of the Gospel will discover both truths regarding Jesus’ nativity. 

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