I recently saw a quote from the Roman Catholic writer and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton. It was from his 1925 work titled, The Everlasting Man. Chesterton writes, “All the great groups that stood about the Cross [priests, soldiers, philosophers, the common people] represent in one way or another the great historical truth of the time; that the world could not save itself.”
And, even though this quote concerns the death of Jesus—far away on the Church calendar on the cusp of Christmas 2019—it does bring to mind all the “great groups” at the nativity, or, better yet, all the “great groups” missing from the nativity scene.
What do I mean?
Well, it’s an image that I can’t get out of my head. It has stayed with me for years even though I’ve never actually SEEN it. And, it’s why I put it before you dear reader every year too. It’s a nativity unlike any you or I have ever experienced. It is a scene of prostitutes, thieves, slaves, and soldiers—the great groups of people. There are lepers and tax collectors and a broken and bloodied victim of crime. There are people from the fringes of life—disaffected, disenchanted, disturbed enough to come out of the shadows to worship the One who came to seek and save those who are lost. Oh, what great groups!
Now, I’ve never actually seen a nativity like that, though I know it exists. (I read about it on the Friday before Christmas in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2006.) The crèche is in Naples, Italy and I have a dream of spending a Christmas there, seeing it in its powerful entirety. I want to walk down the narrow Via San Gregorio Armeno and see hundreds of different Presepio (Crèches), intricately and beautifully made, reflecting the glory of the newborn King. There is no way, however, that I could walk by this one without stopping and staring and concluding that my life-long understanding of the birth and life-giving work of Christ has been so sanitized that I missed a deeper meaning beyond my own finite Christmas memories.
Why have we made our nativity scenes so pleasant? Certainly, staring at the animals one is reminded of the dust and the hay and the filth that accompanies a stable made up of one donkey, one ox, one sheep, a few chickens and maybe a mouse or two. But beyond that, what do you have? You have hard-working shepherds; you have three wise and wealthy men bearing presents; two doting parents; and, possibly, a kind-hearted wife of the owner of the inn who was quick enough to think of the stable as a great place to give birth (conveniently forgetting about the comfort of her and her husband’s own room!).
But that’s all you have. No shadows, no disaffected, disenchanted people disturbing our Christmases past, present, and future with scenes from the ugly side of life. It makes me stop along the way and ask during this season of wonder, what my faith life would have been like and would be like had I not only grasped the disturbance, but been disturbed by it enough to ask “Who has He come for?”
Of course, He’s come for us. He’s come for the “great groups.” We know that. We’ve looked at crèches all our lives and seen the hard-working, yet tender shepherds (that’s us blue-collar folk!). We’ve seen the wise men (that’s us college-educated folk!). We’ve seen the gentle barnyard animals and melted at the cuteness of the 1st-century petting zoo. If those folk are in there, I must be too! It’s our catch-all to say, “It’s all about me! It’s all about her! It’s all about him! It’s all about them!”
But have we been disturbed? King Herod was. He was so disturbed by it all that he sought the newborn King’s death. Even though we are not seeking anyone’s death, except the death of the old Adam and Eve within us, are we disturbed enough that His coming changes our life, our attitude, our understanding of what Christmas is truly about?
The prostitute gave up prostitution. The tax collector stopped working for Rome and followed Jesus. The thief repented and received Paradise. The leper was healed and couldn’t stop telling people about the One. The Roman soldier became a soldier of the cross. The Christmas list of people whose lives were changed by the birth of Christ goes on and on. It is for all people that He has come! It is for all people that He died! It is for all people He lives! Oh, what great groups He has saved!
Are we disturbed enough to give up arrogance? We are no better than those living in the shadows. Are we disturbed enough to give Him all that we have? Yes, Lord, here is my gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and most importantly, my life. Are we disturbed enough to walk the narrow streets and call to those living in the shadows “Come, all who are weary and He will give you rest!”? Are we disturbed enough that we can’t get it out of our head?
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to buy a “disturbance” for our family crèche (let alone walk the narrow streets of Naples at Christmas!). Even the Italian producer of mass-marketed nativities, Fontanini, hasn’t started down that road, though they do manufacture scenes that we’d be more comfortable with: the weaver’s shop, the proscuitto maker’s tasty salumeria, the wine maker’s shop, etc. But regardless of where I spend my Christmases, I’ll never see a nativity scene the same way again…I long to be disturbed.
A 2019 Buon Natale to you,