Thursday, December 9th
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
~ Matthew 2:11 (NRSV)
Advent and the magi have an uneasy relationship, especially for liturgical purists who might even ask that they and their camels stay out of the manger scene until Epiphany.
Yet in the melange of nativity tales that makes up most of our Advent observances, they tend to sneak in as pageant members wearing cardboard crowns, cut-out figures in plywood and paint on the church lawn, or figurines in our crèche sets.
A friend of mine likes to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving as Nativity Day, hauling out of storage a vast collection of manger scenes from around the world. (I’m happy to just enjoy the pictures online — I don’t have to dust those.) They are an art form, and an act of worship: but I repeat myself.
To look at a wide variety of forms and cultures and means presenting the nativity story in three dimensions can be revelatory in a New Testament, gospel oriented sense. You see how the mystery of “God-with-us,” Emmanu-el, is re-presented by different societies and artistic media. I’ll admit to having an olive wood manger scene carved simply and quickly by Palestinians in Bethlehem, who were delighted I wanted to visit their workshop and not just buy and run. Looking at that set when I get it out, I remember the sheen of the steel tools and drills on the bench, the scent of the milled wood, the crunch of sawdust everywhere, and the smiles and kind words shared that day, along with the baby Jesus who brought us together.
There’s wrapped carefully a nativity in a box at home which was a set of Italian rubber figures, ethnically diverse kings and Renaissance shepherds, bought by my mother at Western Auto in a small town as a child. They are special, but so also is the stable wood. It was made by my grandfather out of wood from the old family home after it had been demolished. The sheep and I know that the donkey and ox have to go just so, or they won’t stand up, on either side of Mary and the baby.
Then a larger mantlepiece set of ceramic, a commercially molded collection but painted and fired by my great-aunts, a team effort and one of their last, as eyesight and coordination were growing weaker. They were proud of their gift, though it took the last of their energies that winter long ago. I see the odd squiggles and misplaced facial features as I get it out, and they make me love it all the more. Love overcame perfectionism in that last craft project, and there’s a lesson Joseph nods his head at, stiffly.
In every manger scene, each crèche display, all our plastic or blown glass stables, we pay homage to love and hope and promise and fulfillment. May your image of Christmas to come illustrate the Advent you intend to experience.
Prayer: God of shepherds, angels, camels and oxen, mothers and fathers and shirttail relations, may we see ourselves standing somewhere in any manger scene we view, and know we have someone worthy of homage opening the way ahead for us. Amen!