Monday, December 23, 2013

An epiphany at the manger

Shortly before we left northern New York, a friend took us to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. It has a museum with a collection of eight hundred nativity scenes from countries all over the world. There is one huge one, more than life size, that takes up an entire room.

I spent a long time examining that nativity scene, moving from one figure to another: the shepherds, the Magi, the animals, and, finally, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. I had never seen a nativity where the people and animals were so large and so life-like. I was fascinated.

After a few minutes, I realized that the appearance of the figures reminded me of a nativity scene my parents gave me when I was two years old. It contained a wooden stable and manger. The people and animals were made of plaster and hand painted: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a donkey, a cow, a shepherd, four sheep, three wise men, a camel, and an angel.

I still have it. Setting up that nativity scene every year has become a sacred ritual for me. It’s traveled with me to all the places I’ve lived. Some years it’s been set up under the Christmas tree, some years on a desk or table, some years in my office at whatever church I was serving at the time. It dates from the same era as the one at St. Joseph’s Oratory, which may be why the room-sized one reminded me so much of the little one I’ve had almost all my life.

And then, as I stood pondering the bigger-than-life nativity scene before me, I had an epiphany. At the manger. How appropriate, our friend noted.

The epiphany: my childhood nativity scene was my first experience of faith, at the age of two. By the time I was in second grade, I wrote out the whole account of the story of the birth of Jesus in pencil on the double-lined paper we used in school to help us learn good penmanship. Years later, after my mother’s death, I found the pages in her desk. By the age of seven, I had that story down cold. I could recite every detail, without hesitation.

Our friend commented that the nativity story was probably the first experience of faith for many children, not just me. I think he’s right. And what a wonderful teaching tool a nativity scene can be! As I look at mine, I realize that today the manufacturer would have had to recall it because some of the pieces are small enough for a young child to swallow. My parents must have supervised me carefully and taught me to treat it with care, because I didn’t swallow any of the pieces.

However, when I was four, one of my little friends picked up one of the sheep and, to my horror, threw it on the floor and broke it. I screamed and cried inconsolably. Fortunately, only one piece broke off the base. My mother carefully glued it back together, and to this day I can still see the tiny seam when I turn the sheep upside down.

So maybe a child’s nativity scene should not be made of plaster, glass, or some other breakable material. Wood, perhaps. Non-toxic paint. And big pieces, too big to swallow. It’s important for a child to be able to pick up each piece and feel the shape of it, admire the color of a robe or the hump of a camel, turn it over, and listen to someone tell the story behind each piece.
When I was growing up, my church put on a "living nativity scene" on the lawn each Advent. For several evenings in December, church members – adults and older children – would dress in costume and stand perfectly still for thirty-minute shifts as cars passed and people came to stand and watch. When I was in junior high, I started to take part: first as a shepherd, then as a wise man, and when I was sixteen, as the angel, perched on a ladder at the back of the stable. It was freezing cold that night – for New Orleans, that is, which means it was probably in the forties. Still, that’s pretty darn cold when you can’t move for thirty minutes.

Years later, as an adult, I was Mary. I got to sit in the stable for those thirty-minute shifts, which in my opinion made it the best role to have. That year it was so warm that I was discreetly slapping mosquitoes around my ankles as I sat beside the manger.

Time passes. Much of the nativity scene was stored under the raised choir loft and was destroyed in the flooding caused by the levee breaches after Katrina. The costumes were on the second floor of the education building and survived.

The congregation is much younger today than it was when I was growing up. This year, some of the men built a new stable and set it up on the side lawn of the church. Last Friday night we had a "reimagined" living nativity scene: a reboot, if you will. The children of the church right now are much too young to stand still for thirty-minute shifts. In fact, five minutes would probably be too long. So, led by Pastor Fred, we all streamed onto the church lawn at twilight, children and adults in costume, and had a combination living nativity - impromptu Christmas pageant right there, with the cars going by and people stopping to see what was going on and taking pictures and videos with their smartphones (something else we didn’t have back when I was growing up).

We brought Gabby the dog with us, not realizing we would be invited to take part. So we stuffed a sheepskin under her harness and made her a sheep. We grabbed a couple of shepherd’s robes and joined the children in being terrified by the angel and then running to Bethlehem to see this child the angel told us we would find there. One of the fathers was wearing a donkey costume (at least I think that’s what it was) and got down on his hands and knees in front of the stable. We went through the story twice, and a good time was had by all.

It was definitely not the living nativity of my childhood. But that’s okay. Back then, all of us in our different roles were characters frozen in a moment of time long ago (which never really happened in the Biblical account; the wise men didn’t show up at the same time as the shepherds). This year, we told a story. We were moving around, experiencing the events for ourselves, in our own lives and in our own time. And there’s something theologically appropriate about that.

Jesus is not frozen in time, way back when. Jesus is alive and active in our world, even today.

Our friend is right: The story of the birth of Jesus is the first experience of faith for many children. They learn it by picking up and examining the pieces of a nativity scene. They learn it by acting out the roles in the story. They learn it through the costumes, and the words of the story, and the songs they learn to sing about the birth of Jesus. Sure, some of them are hokey – at least that’s what it may seem like to some of us adults. But maybe not so hokey to the children, not yet.

In time, if their families make faith a priority, they’ll learn more about Jesus. And maybe one day they’ll decide for themselves that they want to follow him.

And here’s my nativity scene, set up for Christmas 2013, back in New Orleans again.

Monday, December 02, 2013

First Sunday in Advent, 2013

We worshiped on the first Sunday in Advent at the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans, where I grew up. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) it is common practice to have communion on the first Sunday of the month. What an appropriate way to begin Advent, with the Lord's Supper.

At FPCNO, things are done much more simply now in a post-Katrina world, and communion is by intinction rather than with trays and little cups. Both wine and grape juice are offered. We were sitting fairly close to the front, so we were near the beginning of the line when we came up to receive the elements.

After we sat down again, I watched the people coming forward. I saw a father come up holding his young daughter's hand. I knew this man when he was in high school in the youth group and I was on the session -- thirty years ago. Now he is a church leader and bringing his own daughter to worship as his parents had brought him and his brother years ago. (His brother is a leader in a church across the lake.)

And I was reminded of coming to worship in that sanctuary with my own father, so many years ago, when I was this young daughter's age. Whenever I come to worship there, I think of him. Whenever I open the front door of the church, in my mind's eye I see him standing there greeting people before worship.

Faith comes down through the generations. It is passed from parents to children and grandchildren. I give thanks for my father, who brought me to church and showed me by his example what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to serve him through his church.

There are other ways people come to faith, of course. Some are invited by friends. Some have unexpected and powerful experiences of faith -- Damascus road experiences. Each person who came forward to receive the sacrament that morning has a different faith story to tell. And each person's faith experience is equally valid.

But it was powerful for me to see that father and daughter yesterday. Thanks be to God for parents who teach faith to their children by their own example.