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Nativity Scene Role of a Lifetime

By Ray Waddle

The last time I had a role in a nativity scene at church, Nixon was in the White House and I was in grade school. Livestock was my assignment – one year, I was a sheep; the next, an ox. I complied, though my true crèche career goal was wise man. They got to make a big entrance, bring gifts and wear beards.

I eventually gave up my nativity role ambitions, but I still watch for live nativity scenes in church or neighborhood. No matter how modest or underfunded they appear, there’s something indestructible about them.

Writer Frederick Buechner, an old favorite of mine, has written jarringly about Christmas: “Ultimate mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.” (Whistling in the Dark,1988)

The annual holiday, as he knew, runs the risk of reducing the Christmas story to something bland, mushy and safe. Leave it to human beings to turn even the dumbfounding incarnation into something ho-ho-hum.

Watching a nativity scene, however, I don’t feel terror or fright. Calm descends. The basic elements are always there – a baby bathed in light, the parents, field hands, stargazers, animals, maybe an angelic onlooker or two. They are all witnesses to something – plot points and building blocks of eternity. They are issuing an invitation. At that moment, the Incarnation is not being debated or argued, but remembered, revealed, inhabited.

The genius and power of the nativity scene, any nativity scene, is this: when you come upon one, you don’t have to be dressed for the part with beard, shawl, sandals or barnyard cattle mask. You’re in the pageant already, part of the larger world that sees the drama unfolding, pondering what it could mean, deciding the next move.

Not much has changed in 2,000 years. We are all witnesses still -- with the choice of turning away, or turning to the next person to share astonishment and gratitude.

Ray Waddle is a columnist, author and the editor of Reflections magazine, published by Yale Divinity School.

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