Driving around Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Grove allows you to see quite an array of lights and holiday decorations. Santas, reindeer, snow people, candy canes and colored lights appear on every street. There are yards decked only in white, with glittering icicles dripping from every tree. There are yards with each tree lined with a different color of lights to make a multi-colored scene. There are whole snow families and herds of reindeer and Santas of all mediums and sizes. And once in a while, a manger scene appears among the colored lights. Christmas as the birth of Christ seems to be have taken second place to the other characters that have become associated with the holiday.
Our Christmas traditions seem to get richer and more elaborate as time goes by. The celebration of Christmas has become a whole lot more complicated than its origin story with shepherds coming to see a baby in a stable. If you asked a group of children on the street to explain Christmas, you would likely hear about presents and Santa. Adults might start with food preparation or family gatherings. You might not hear, at least initially, about the birth of Jesus or a manger.
In Nashville, Tennessee at The Upper Room there is a museum which in December for almost 50 years has displayed a wide variety of nativity scenes -- over 180, in fact, representing 40 cultures. The smallest ones fit in matchboxes. The largest one has figures almost 3 feet high.
The collection began in the 1970s to show the relevance of Jesus in a wide variety of cultures around the world. The nativity scenes come from Mexico, Nigeria, Denmark, Zimbabwe, Korea, India, the former Czechoslovakia, Peru and Chile. Mediums range from porcelain to painted fieldstone, stained glass, several types of wood, papier-mache, ceramic, blown glass and a paper doll Nativity from Czechoslovakia with more than 50 pieces.
There is a folk-art creche, one made in a shell with mother of pearl, an origami Nativity, a pewter set, a puzzle creche, one made of Celtic stone, a crocheted set, a Hummel creche and three sets created by the magnificent ANRI artists of Italy. A favorite is a colorful Raku Nativity scene from Johannesburg, South Africa, with the holy family surrounded by a tiger, an alligator, a turtle, an elephant, a giraffe and a meerkat. There is a black-on-black pottery set from Santa Clara, New Mexico, that includes a hedgehog and a buffalo. And there is even one set with a cat in the mix.
In one of the scenes, the gifts brought to the Christ child are not the traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh, but bread, water and wood for a fire, all too precious in some of the cultures represented.
The goal of the collection has been "to tell the story of the birth of Jesus through the eyes of all of the different cultures," said Kathryn Kimball, curator and manager of the collections, who has worked at the museum for 40 years.[i]
But now there is less interest in the creches, beautiful and unique as they are. “In the mid 1970s, as many as 240,000 people visited the museum, but in recent years, attendance has hovered around 5,000.” If you want to see them, make plans to go to Nashville before January 10 – because the museum will be closing. The collection will be broken up, with some sets being given to other organizations and some will be sold. Fewer people seem interested in stopping to look at manger scenes. Fewer people want to consider the significance of a manger.
We gather here tonight because we know something that much of the world seems to have missed. The world had a pivot point in that manger in Bethlehem. Everything shifted. It wasn’t because angels sang, or shepherds left the hillsides or even that Mages left their contemplations in the East to see what the heavens foretold. Those things were certainly out of the ordinary – but they didn’t change the world.
CHILD. The pivot point was the child in the manger. We call it the Incarnation – that God was enfleshed in human form. God WITH us. We sing about it – that Love came down at Christmas. Love came down for the world to know, what the wise ones knew such a long time ago…[ii] Something amazing! That we could encounter God in the flesh in this human being named Jesus. God became human. And the world shifted. Of course it did!
MANGER. Perhaps the manger was a part of the shift too. The Christ child wasn’t born in a palace, to a family of privilege. He was born to humble parents, if we don’t want to say poor and struggling parents. And the place they had to put him was a feeding trough – not a handcarved cradle or top of the line crib. In our grandparents’ day we may have heard stories of being poor and putting a newborn baby, wrapped in blankets of course, in a dresser drawer. This was similar. The Holy child was a child of poor parents, born into humble surroundings. Accessible to the shepherds who were the invited guest and ignored by the wealthy and powerful. God became a child -- from powerful to powerless and vulnerable. This is the child foretold who would lift up the lowly and cast down the powerful, who came to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind…And the world shifted.
We shouldn’t be too surprised that God would work in such an ordinary, humble, way. Following God has always been counter-cultural.
Repent: means literally to turn around. Early Christians were asked to commit to following Jesus as a new allegiance, renouncing other allegiances or loyalties.
Christians in many parts of the world are perceived as a threat to the government and forced to meet, worship, pray and study in secret. Being known to be a Christian can mean imprisonment or death because…(you know) Christians are dangerous. They aren’t like other people.
In our time: We who follow Jesus are trying to live differently: to love our neighbors in substantive ways, to champion the vulnerable, to speak truth to power, even those in power that we generally like…it has never been easy to follow God when there are so many popular gods demanding our attention and allegiance.
Following God, following Jesus, has always been counter-cultural. The world doesn’t like challenge and change, which makes following this Christ of the manger more difficult. He seemed born to that role, born to challenge those in power, born to present a different way of living together in peace and valuing those considered worthless. Gathering at his manger is an act of resistance.
And so we come tonight, to gather at the manger to see and worship a baby who challenged the world – changed the world. And if we choose to follow him, if we worship him with our lives, he will challenge and change us too.
[ii] Amy Grant, “Love Came Down.”