Last week, my husband hurled our Christmas tree out of our living room window. We discovered this method of getting the tree outside last year and it saves us from having to collect needles that were, in previous years, strewn across our living room to the front door. Pushing a tree out the window is also just ridiculous enough to feel liberating. While our tree (which was so dry that it was ready to go up in a fiery blaze) had to be disposed of early this year, our Nativity set reminds us that it is still Christmas for one more day. However, it is a different Nativity scene that I find myself contemplating as I write this.
Unlike the peaceful statues that depict the birth of Christ in my home, the Vatican Nativity scene this year has caused quite a bit of controversy. If you haven’t seen pictures of it, I would encourage you to look it up. Far from the usual tranquil and picturesque scenes that tend to depict Jesus’s birth, this one is chaotic and messy. The walls behind the Holy family appear to be crumbling. The figures are crowded together, so much so that it is sometimes hard to tell which appendage belongs to which statue. When we really think about the Christmas story, we realize that this is how it should be – Christ’s birth was chaotic and messy. His family was “living out of a suitcase” as they stayed in a town that was overflowing with visitors. They were sleeping in a shelter for animals which, no doubt meant that they were enjoying all of the sounds and smells that accompany a quaint barnyard birth. Into this environment that was far from homey, came unfamiliar visitors from diverse social classes. To top it all off, the king already wanted Jesus dead. Certainly there was peace and joy on that night, but that had nothing to do with Jesus’s surroundings. Instead, God Himself reached down and drew peace and joy out of a virgin womb. It was this act of God that brought those two gifts into the hearts of those who worshiped the newborn King who was born to dwell in the desperation, filth and despair of humanity.
While the infant Jesus is at the center of the Vatican’s Nativity scene, the figures that surround the more traditional Christmas statues reveal another aspect of our Savior through the corporal works of mercy that they are performing. In one corner, a woman quenches her neighbors thirst. In another, a man offers dignity to a boy lying naked beneath him by offering him clothes. At the bottom of the scene, with arms outstretched, a figure walks toward an invalid who is bandaged and flushed with fever. Next to them, someone visits a prisoner and, in the far corner, a young man provides burial for a dead body. These figures not only prod us to do what Jesus calls us to do, but they remind us that the irresistible baby lying in a manger would grow up to be a man whose teachings divided families, who demanded that we take up our cross daily, and who told us that to truly serve Him, we must care for others.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:34-40
If you know this passage, you will also know that Jesus’s next words are some of the most terrifying in the Bible:
“‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” Matthew 25:41-43
Every time I read these words, I shudder. For how much food do I have in my pantry, while there is still great hunger in the world? How easily do I open my faucet that flows with pure water, while children are dying from diseases borne by unclean water? How many strangers have I failed to welcome into the safe, little world that I exist in? How many homeless men and women are shivering on the streets, while hats, gloves, scarves and coats hang unused in my closets? How many times have I been too busy or afraid to offer help to the sick or to those who are cast aside or imprisoned by society? The reality is that I do not measure up well to the standard that Jesus has set before me. However, one of the incredible mysteries of our faith is that salvation is available only through Christ even though we do not deserve it and, yet, Jesus Himself has commanded us to perform great acts of love and sacrifice.
The 2017 Vatican Nativity, portrays both of these truths: that God loved the world so much that He sent His son to be born amidst a desperate people and that He sends us to minister to that world today. It reminds us that faith in Christ has little to do with adoring the little Lord Jesus who made no crying and much more to do with following a man whose message was loud and painful. It forces us to consider the reality that, from birth, our God made His home in the often dirty, fragrant, and chaotic company of the poor, the forgotten, the sinners, the hopeless. It makes us wonder whether or not we have made our homes with Him there, too.