Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
We need to start planning now. We have only 10 years till it is the 800th anniversary of the Nativity Scene. Tradition has it that Saint Francis started the custom upon returning from Bethlehem in 1223. He staged a Nativity Scene in a cave with live animals and people. It went viral and became the thing to do at your cathedral, chapel or palace. At some point statues were substituted for the characters. Then people made smaller versions and the crèche industry was born.
The Nativity Scenes or pageants I have witnessed tend to go from a couple with a new baby to a barn full of people fairly quickly. Why? John Calvin says in his Harmony of the Gospels, “It would have been to no purpose that Christ was born in Bethlehem, if it had not been made known to the world. But the method of doing so, which is described by Luke, appears to the view of men very unsuitable. First, Christ is revealed but to a few witnesses, and that too amidst the darkness of night. Again, though God had, at his command, many honorable and distinguished witnesses, he passed by them, and chose shepherds, persons of humble rank, and of no account among men.”
There was a need for a community to be formed to give witness to the incarnation. A community brought together around a God event that has been seen and experienced by many. Eyewitnesses might have seen just another baby born to poor parents. But these eyewitnesses have been taught by angels to look with different eyes. They witness to Joseph and Mary the proclamation they received from the angels. The community of shepherds and new parents shares its faith story.
The witness to me is that it takes a community to tell this story. It takes people with their eighth Christmas and people with their first. It takes people who can sing solos as well as people who can get one more ounce of heat out of the furnace. They come together from tradition, hope, struggle and wonder to witness to something bigger than them all. And that is how you create a Nativity Scene.