Last week my three-year-old granddaughter spent a day with me -- we are in the same pandemic bubble. We had a great day together, the highlight of which was her playing with an old wooden nativity set that I’ve had for at least 40 years. Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in a carved wooden crib, three wisemen and a handful of sheep/donkeys. Contrary to the nursery rhyme, these little sheep have lost their shepherds. At any rate, my granddaughter played with them throughout the day, introducing them to some Native Americans, Lego people, and one small, bedraggled, artificial Christmas tree.
The next day, as I gathered up the toys, I sorted the play figures -- putting away the plastic versions and scooping up the wooden nativity figures, setting them on a wooden tray that I keep on my coffee table. I went about the rest of my day, but the next morning, as I sat on my sofa, gazing at my seven-foot Christmas tree, also artificial, I noticed the nativity folk on the wooden tray. The tree stood in their midst. The men were gathered up together, as though they’d formed a football huddle. I smiled at what they might be saying to each other. “Great visit with the baby, Joseph, but where can we get a drink and a hot meal?” Mary sat by herself, removed, her back to the men, staring off into the distance at my blank television set. Scripture says (in Luke 2:19) that while the shepherds were nattering on about the baby Jesus, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Maybe my rearranged nativity set reflected Mary in a pondering moment. Meanwhile, as she’s got her back to the action and Joseph and the Wise Men are conferring, the baby Jesus lay across the tray, behind the tattered Christmas tree, in his manger, all alone.
Now, I have been known to read too much into little things, but my unintentionally alternative nativity scene has been much on my mind in recent days. Like Mary, I catch myself staring off into the distance, lost in my own thoughts, wondering about how to sensibly celebrate Christmas in the midst of a global pandemic. At other times, I am caught up in animated conversations about the latest political fallout of this nightmare presidential transition. “Have you heard the latest?” Occasionally, I feel alone like the little wooden Jesus, wondering, perhaps, like him, about what my life means in this hostile world. And all too often, I think about how the adults in this nativity scene seem to be ignoring -- and I cringe to use this phrase -- “the reason for the season.”
It’s been almost a week and I haven’t rearranged this unusual nativity scene yet. I think it is teaching me something, and I want to reflect on it a little longer. Here’s what I’ve come up with. That after more than sixty years of contemplating the Christmas story, I often get it wrong. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with thinking about Mary, or Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men or even Jesus. But sometimes I forget the big picture. And I think it is the big picture that promises hope. I think the point of the nativity story is to remind us that the birth of Jesus involved more than three people. A group of individuals, each with different perspectives, different lives, and different values, were present. Surely, the birth of Jesus did not affect all the witnesses in the same way. So removed from their circumstances, we can’t be sure whether or how the rest of their lives were changed.
The same is true today. As I sit in judgment of others who don’t “get” the Christmas story, I am reminded that there is a lot about an individual's or a groups’ mindsets, motives, and actions that I just don’t know. I pretend I can read their minds, but the truth is, I can’t. Maybe one miracle of Christmas is recognizing that hope may well reside in the inner lives of anyone who witnesses the birth of Jesus. How that hope expresses itself may not be readily, if ever, apparent to the rest of us. But for me, this difficult year, believing that hope exists when I can't see it may be the point of the nativity story.