And so this is Christmas, as John Lennon once sang, and the crèche, that seemingly indispensable panorama of Mary, Joseph, an infant Jesus, shepherds, barn animals, angels, and Magi finds itself arrayed in places of honor in every Christian, and a few non-Christian, homes. Crèches are a multi-million dollar commercial enterprise, coming in a plethora of shapes, sizes, themes, and characters. But what are they really? A religious tableau, a moment captured in some ancient history, a mere Christmas decoration, an enhancement to the garland, the tree, the poinsettias, the Santas, or are they something more profound? It may be interesting to inquire how many believers ever consider a “more” to these scenes, or even know how to consider anything more than what is immediately presented in them. Yet, if we sincerely reflect upon the crèche there may be much more that it challenges believers with than we dare imagine.
Just consider gazing upon a crèche with the paradoxical dilemma that is Christmas itself: God as a divinity – powerful, distant – and given the divine concepts with which we humans work, any god who comes to earth merely messes around with human beings and then returns to heaven, where such a divinity belongs – beyond our reach, beyond us. But in truth, the Christian revelation is just the opposite. Here is a God who just doesn’t tarry for a while, staying until she or he tires of humanity and our foolishness, but a God who becomes wrapped in, or enraptured of, who and what we are; in what we experience, our struggles, our joys, our happiness – a very odd kind of God if you think about it; remarkable and fantastic, even. Such a revelation does not exist in any other period of history; it is rare for a god of the ancients to manifest itself as an infant – vulnerable, needy, weak, dependent, and yet this is how this God comes to us.
So gazing upon the crèche actually confronts the believer with a fundamental question: “Who is in that crib, which is center stage? Is the infant the Mighty Lord, King of Kings, Omnipotent One, Wonder Counselor, God forever, Prince of Peace, who has human destiny in mind and in hand? Or is it simply a baby – needing a mommy and a daddy? The scriptural focus is of a child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, basically to keep the child from becoming colicky, and perhaps it is there that we need to begin struggling for an answer.
Many will have problems beginning with this image. For them, God needs to be almighty all the time, in full control of everything. If this is so, then any connection with us is lost. God just appears to be human, just appears to care, and if this is the case, then are we dealing with someone who doesn’t really care about us, and even worse, with someone we can never identify. It is a perspective that nullifies all those things that God says about carving us upon the palm of God’s hand, of gathering us like chicks under the wings of a mother hen, or knowing us more deeply than we know ourselves. God’s caring reveals itself as worthless, meaningless, a composite of nice little sayings, but futile and vacuous when applied to the real needs of human beings.
No, believers cannot believe this; cannot believe that God is ever just pretending. What beginning with a child in the crib reveals, even more paradoxically, is that God needs us as much as we need God. It is the greatest demonstration of divine humility, the greatest demonstration of a God who condescends, who cries out as a child, “I want to be with you! I want to be with, to be a part of, what I have created” This God appears in weakness and vulnerability so its creation won’t be afraid to approach and bond with God. A God who will not let anything stand in the way of being with us, of sharing our very life – “I take on your weakness in a dramatic powerful way, so nothing stands in the way between us.”
All this wonder, however, is often difficult to discern beyond the sentimentalization and historicization of the crèche, clay, wood, plastic, or porcelain figures set in a frozen moment in time. And yet this context may be the most profound revelation of all – of a God who is indeed hidden, hidden amidst the most mundane and familiar around us. A God who remains hidden but dares us to find him/her, to search for her/him. A God who challenges us to “go out into deep,” into that hiddenness where our concepts of reason and rationality are redefined, and paltry ideas of what is important and what is not begin to fall apart.
It has to surprise us how easily the shepherds go off to discover what has been revealed to them by the angels. Even though they may have gone to the stable more out of curiosity than faith, it was still not an odd thing for them to do. For when they arrive they gaze on all that is there, spend time with the child, with his loving mother and father, and with the ridiculous absurdity of a savior born to humanity in time and space in a stable, they leave that place filled with joy and glorifying God. All those, then, who encounter Christ in the crèche are also meant to move from these scenes filled with joy. This is who and what a “God-for-us” is and this scene is just a small sampling of it. If the enormity of who and what God is can strike us in just a small sampling of it, how much more can this revelation grow in us if we become people so touched by it that we do not rest until we discover more and more of that hiddenness of God always in the process of being revealed?
At Christmas, believers are challenged, just as the shepherds were, to find again the child born in the city of David, and to discover where that search leads us. For those who persevere it can lead to that more about and in us that we seem unable to find the rest of the year. It can lead to recognizing that the kindness and compassion we yearn for in December is inspired by the greater compassion, kindness, love, forgiveness and mercy that come from a God who takes on vulnerability and proclaims to us that this is the only way to glory, the only way to those wonderful things we want to experience every day in our lives.