What would St. Francis of Assisi say?
The originator of the Christmas crèche, if only he could have copyrighted the idea, clearly would have made a fortune. Using figures to meditate on the mysteries of the nativity is just a great, great idea. It works for so many people, young and old! You can’t beat it for encouraging imaginative engagement with the story of Christ’s birth.
Like any religious devotion that makes its way into truly popular culture though, there’s no saying how far it may get pushed over the edge into… well, tasteless trash.
A friend of mine shared this website post of whacky nativity sets. He found it hilarious.
I have to admit, however, that seeing this collection of the world’s worst nativity sets (and reading that the list is growing) made me grimace rather than smile.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think there is only one way to do this. In fact, I’m all for inculturation. I think it’s wonderful, for instance, to see the Holy Family depicted as members of all races and peoples. It can be a beautiful witness to how Christian believers around the globe own the story — it’s our story, wherever and whoever we may be.
I think there’s a place for anachronism in engaging with the Christmas story. There’s a way of putting our contemporary world around the Christmas crib, thus symbolizing the coming of Christ into our everyday life—a popular motif in Italian crèches. The idea behind that sort of thing is grand.
Let me hasten to add that not all religious art is fine art, and that’s perfectly, well, fine. Folk art is genuinely valuable. I’m even OK with sentimental art or “religious kitsch” in the home. Placing, say, the little drummer boy or a kneeling Santa into the nativity scene under someone’s Christmas tree may not be to my taste, but I respect the devotional impulse behind it.
But a Holy Family made out of rubber ducks? The Savior in sausage? A crèche of kitty cats? Here’s my question: Is there a point at which the point of the crèche is lost? Or can anything be dressed as the Holy Family, and it still works? In other words, is it impossible to evacuate the meaning from the symbols (the figures and their arrangement), and therefore it really doesn’t matter?
Maybe a Holy Family made up of dogs is just a bit of foolishness, and we should all have a good laugh. Maybe we should even admire all the novelties people have thought up. On the other hand, we are heading into a post-Christian culture, in which images that made sense in a Christian context are losing that context. Maybe frivolous treatment of the Christmas crèche is not a laughing matter.
What would St. Francis think?
What do you think?