Christmas Eve, 2013
Perhaps no symbol of Christmas proper is more abiding than the nativity scene, or crèche. At its core—Santa, decorated trees and mistletoe notwithstanding—the celebration of God’s humble arrival in Christ remains best depicted by those humbly built stables stocked with figurines of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Crèche comes from the Old French word meaning crib, though both story and song insist that there was no crib, and no stable either for that matter. Crèches come in all sizes, from the miniature ones that adorn tables and fireplace mantles to the life-sized (and even living) ones that inhabit home and church yards and even some public parks worldwide. They range from the inspirational to the indigestible; from the beautifully carved genuine Mount of Olive-wood crèche my aunt and uncle gave me years ago to the honky-tonk lawn models complete with a big plastic baby Jesus. In my neighborhood growing up, one family lit their plastic baby Jesus with a blinking bulb. One moment Jesus was light of the world, the next moment he wasn’t.
While in Bethlehem this year on a Holy Land Pilgrimage with others from our church, I was eager to see the original crèche, or at least at the place Christian Tradition marks as Jesus’ birthplace. The Church of the Nativity sits atop the manger site in Manger Square, constructed in the fourth century by the Roman Emperor Constantine whose conversion made Christianity the religion of the Empire and of the Western world. Remodeled by the Byzantine Emperor in the sixth century, the Church of the Nativity is currently enjoying a new birth of its own, its first facelift in more than 600 years. The fortresslike basilica—a far cry from anything the Holy Family could have imagined—remains one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, having survived—some would say miraculously—various invasions, regime changes, fires, earthquakes and, most recently, the 2002 siege of Bethlehem, when armed Palestinians hid in the church from Israeli forces for weeks. The remodeling job leaves alone the place where Jesus lay. That traditional site resides underground in a cramped grotto you access first by ducking through a small, four-foot-high entryway called “the door of humility,” and then by waiting in an enormously long line before finally descending a flight of stairs to file by a small cave where, for a brief moment, you glimpse at a silver star behind a curtain that marks the spot.
Since nobody knows for sure that the spot, operated by the Orthodox Church, is actually the spot, and because the line to see it was so long, our tour guide suggested we mosey over to the Roman Catholic section of the church since Jesus just as well could have been born over there. The church is sectioned off according to denomination with competing crèche operations because Christians get along as well with each other in the Holy Land as do Israelis and Palestinians. Not too long ago, feuding friars claiming to follow the Prince of peace got into a smash-mouth fistfight that landed some of them in the hospital. The incident erupted over the improper dusting of some of the church chandeliers. Apparently to clean any part of the church is to lay claim to it, which the belligerent brothers don’t take sitting down.
The Roman Catholic spot didn’t hold a candle to my high expectations manger-wise, despite all the candles, which was a serious let down. But then I looked down and noticed how the the Exit stairs from the Traditional Site run by the Orthodox were clear. If I was quick, I could sneak down the up stairs and steal a peek, even though that meant jumping in front of hundreds who had waited hours in line. Rationalizing that God would approve of a minister doing research for his Christmas Eve sermon, I went for it, scurrying below to the grotto, down the up staircase, squeezing past the queue like any obnoxious American, only to find a vacant hole hewn out of a rock that looked like any other hole, a humble cave with its sides smoothed down by centuries of pilgrims who’d rubbed their hands on the spot for a blessing.
There was no creche in the hole; Joseph, Mary and Jesus were nowhere to be found, but they were for sale in the souvenir shops that packed Manger Square once you emerged from the Church. The nativity figurines sold ranged from the petite to the life-sized suitable for outdoor display. One of these life-sized crèche displays was actually swiped from a church in, of all places, St. Joseph, MN, over Thanksgiving. The figurines had been been Christmas season mainstays for decades. Lovers of the crèche were clearly—crushed. The pastor of the church excoriated the thieves for breaking one of the Ten Commandments as well as the hearts of his congregation.
The Holy Family suffered a similar indignity when I lived in Boston. The city sponsored a crèche on Boston Common, remarkable in these days of stern church-state separation and political correctness. Each December, Parks Department workers—in addition to their holiday tasks of stringing lights and inflating huge blow-up candy canes—assembled a large brown stable complete with fiberglass replicas of the Holy Family placed inside. Amidst the extensive commercialization of the holiday season—bemoaned if not begrudged—it was comforting to saunter by the crèche and be reminded of the true meaning of Christmas. Its presence drew to the surface those spiritual undercurrents easily obscured by all of the overwhelming hustle and bustle.
The only problem was that the Boston rendition featured the Holy Family ensconced behind a plexiglas wall, which sadly made the crèche look more like a zoo exhibit. The purpose was to deter thieves, and frankly, it was better than previous efforts. It used to be that the Parks Department attached these big thick chains to the nativity figures to prevent them from being stolen. You’d stroll along Boston Common on a cold winter’s night, the lovely Christmas tree lights illumining your path. Enraptured by the ambiance of the season, you’d look left and behold the solemn nativity scene: Mary, Joseph and Jesus—shackled to the manger.
Unfortunately the chains weren’t deterrent enough. One year someone actually climbed into the stable in Herod-like fashion with a blow torch and absconded with the fiberglass family! So the next year, in order to keep “away in a manger” from becoming “away from the manger,” up went the plexiglass security doors.
I thought about those security doors while in Bethlehem this year. The City of David sits ensconced by a massive, 400-mile-long concrete security wall erected by Israel to guard against attack from their enemies. Resentful Palestinians smolder in both the West Bank (to the east, where Bethlehem resides and the barrier is built) and a Hamas-governed Gaza (to the west). Add to that a disruptive Egypt churning to the South, a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and warring Syria to the north, and a bellicose Iran just over Jordan to the east. What unites these enemies is the intent to wipe Israel off the map, an intention already depicted on Palestinian maps where Israel is nowhere to be found. Israel responds by walling off the Palestinians and building Jewish settlements, immense complexes that dominate the high ground surrounding Bethlehem. Critics blame the security measures for turning Bethlehem into a ghetto, not only depriving citizens from freely moving about their land, but also strangling the economy. Poverty is rampant. With an area of seven square miles, Bethlehem is truly little, the smallest Palestinian city in the West Bank, but its unemployment rate, which hovers around 20 percent, is the highest.
Secretary of State John Kerry continues to press Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward peace negotiations recently revived after a three-year hiatus. But prospects for peace remain remote. There’s negligible motivation for either side to make a deal. For Israel to grant statehood status to Palestine brings an avowed enemy that much closer to their border. For Palestinians it would mean losing the moral high ground as a refugee people and having to finally draw in Israel as a state on its maps, recognizing Israel’s legitimacy. At a Palestinian Lutheran church we visited, the pastor explained that Israeli and Palestinian identities are so defined and energized by their conflict that any real peace on this part of earth is virtually impossible, despite the angels’ pronouncement a mile or so up the road that first Christmas night.
Modern Bethlehem governed by a Palestinian authority under Israeli occupation is not a far cry from the Jewish Herod governing under the heavy thumb of Rome. That the Holy Family faced great danger is very much part of the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph and Jesus were not only coerced into relocating by a tyrannical empire seeking to further exploit its subjects, but by a maniacal magistrate bent on murdering anybody who threatened his throne—even if the threat was one wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
But Jesus was not just any baby, of course. In a passage of Scripture known as the Benedictus, Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, recognizes Jesus as “a mighty savior raised up” by God in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, one who would save all God’s people from our enemies and “from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah calls forth the oath God swore to Abraham, assuring both the subjugation of oppressive governments and freedom to worship without fear. Alluding to those ancient prophecies we recite every Christmas, Zechariah sang how “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Our tour was warned against going to Bethlehem by the US State Department. A series of Palestinian uprisings flared several blocks from the manger creating cause for caution. Nevertheless, as Protestants determined to see, like the shepherds, “this thing which the Lord had made known unto us,” we defied our government, ignored their warnings and crossed the heavily armed checkpoint into the little walled town of Bethlehem. Jews aren’t allowed into the town, so we had to swap our Jewish tour guide for a Palestinian—a Christian on this day—one of a dwindling minority who still reside in Bethlehem. Violence between Israelis and Palestinians has decimated local business, including crèche sales, and is likewise blamed for the flight of so many Palestinian Christians.
Political realities forced Mary, Joseph and Jesus to flee Bethlehem too. They only returned home, to Nazareth to the north, once the infanticidal King Herod died. In St. Joseph Minnesota, the Holy Family thankfully returned home to the Church of St. Joseph last week. “They all came back,” the pastor reported. “The thieves brought them back under the cover of night, [sort of a reversal of] their flight into Egypt.” The congregation and the community offered a collective prayer of joy.
The power of the crèche springs in part from its ability to depict an entire, comprehensive worldview in miniature. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat penned this past week, the crèche depicts “how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and people—the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.”
In a selfie culture that continues to prize the lofty and the loud, the famous and the fortunate, the rich, the beautiful and the strong, Christmas pulls us downward. Sneaking down those Exit stairs at the Church of the Nativity to see the place where Jesus lay, I witnessed an elderly Russian woman weakly struggle to her feeble knees and bow to the ground. I drew back, humbled and ashamed for intruding on such a sacred moment. I was an interloper who acted more like a tourist than a true believer. This pious woman knelt before the unoccupied cave and offered her brief kiss of adoration, a moment for which she’d not only waited in line but likely waited and longed for her whole life, just like Zechariah had waited. And I imagined her recited with Simeon who shows up later in Luke’s gospel, “let your servant depart in peace according to your word, or my eyes have seen your salvation that you prepared for all people.”
Zechariah sang of salvation from enemies, but the real enemy was never an obsessive monarch or an oppressive empire as much as the sin that drives a deep wedge between people and the holy God who loves us. Scripture stresses how God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it, but the more profound and mysterious truth Christians believe is that the Son God sent was none other than God himself in the flesh. Compelled by his unceasing love for sinners, God himself entered into our human condition, grew to live the life we were called to live but wouldn’t, and then died the death for which we were destined. This is an act of unmitigated grace, a shockingly generous and unwarranted gift. Jesus saves finally by losing his life and being raised from the dead, a guarantee of our own resurrection. The enduring symbol of Christmas hope is not an occupied manger but a vacant hole hewn out of a rock—an empty tomb, the dawn of everlasting life.
“By the tender mercy of our God,” Zechariah sang, “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” It’s a long way to peace, but a worthwhile wait in a line that leads downward to that humble space where vacancy is not emptiness but the very fulness of God that fills all things. From this vantage point, having a deserted nativity scene is good news. Had Jesus stayed in the stable, we’d still be in trouble. So may your days be merry and bright and your mangers empty Christmas night.