Even the most skeptical atheist can be moved by the Bible’s manger scene as it is being played out in most church pageants this month. Who would not be touched by the story of an unmarried, very pregnant teenage girl and her anxious, protective fiancé who desperately seek a place of shelter as she prepares to give birth to baby Jesus?
Of course, this Christmas tradition is appealing, in part, because of its tiny performers. Excited (or sometimes reluctant) little preschoolers have been practising their roles for weeks in Sunday School. With a need for multiple shepherds, angels and wise men, not to mention Mary, Joseph and that baby in the cradle, a role can be found for everyone. In larger churches with lots of kids, additional parts are assigned. After all, the stable should house sheep, cows and various other domesticated farm animals. With creative costuming, boys and girls can be transformed into the most appealing and believable barnyard creatures.
More adventurous (or foolhardy) clergy and Sunday school teachers will boldly decide to add actual sheep, cows and donkeys to the performance. Those same brave souls will also substitute a real infant for the doll which is supposed to sleep peacefully in its cradle. Many tales could be told about what can happen next!
The pageant concludes with an endearing image; Baby Jesus is warmly and safely wrapped in his blankets, surrounded by parental love and adoration by those wise men from the east. If that were the end of the Advent story, Christianity would be an easy religion to follow. But soon the cradle was empty. As Luke’s Gospel records: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
As a Jewish teacher, Rabbi Jesus (or “Yeshua” which is his actual Hebrew name) challenged his followers—and us— to live a radical lifestyle. He preached about forgiveness even when we have been treated unjustly. He demonstrated non-judgmental acceptance of those who were ostracized as “the other,” a woman with several failed marriages, a foreigner deemed inferior to the majority populace. He asserted that there is more to life than accumulating possessions. Most of all, he demonstrated a love which was neither merely sentimental nor erotic, but a love which involved giving of himself—his time, his energy, his wisdom, his caring and ultimately his life, for others. The sceptic will scoff at the virgin birth story, doubt his miracles, certainly deny his deity, but few would question Jesus’ teachings.
At Christmas, we can reproduce that divine spirit in our own giving of gifts, by our contributions to charity, by forgiving and reconciling when possible, and by recognizing that an abundant life is the one measured, not by worldly goods, but by loving relationships. His cradle has been long emptied, but his teaching long remains.
I wish you happy holidays and a blessed Christmas as we celebrate his birth.