Nativities

A Christmas memory: At some point in my teenage years my mother purchased a new nativity set, a Fontanini. I didn’t eagerly await the unwrapping of the nativity scene in the same way I did the Dickens Village; it was a tradition each year for my parents to purchase one new piece for the village. Possibly my favorite Christmas memories consisted of watching the village grow year after year. When I finally left home the Village had become quite substantial. But the preparations for the traditions into which we spoke and enacted every Christmas were not complete until the Nativity had been unwrapped and carefully and lovingly arranged on the table. The placement of the Nativity allowed the celebration to officially commence.

In the intervening years I’ve become more and more interested in alternative, unconventional arrangements of nativities. This one below, a painting of the Nativity by Brian Kershisnik that has been making the rounds in Mormondom, has become a favorite. Nearly everything about this depiction of the Nativity is unorthodox: Mary is simply and lovingly holding her newborn son as any mother would, being attended to by what appear to be close female friends; the skin of the Christ-child is darker (and therefore probably more ethnically and historically accurate) than most conventional representations; Joseph looks completely overwhelmed,

Brian Kershisnik, "Nativity"

facing away from the scene, his hand covering one side of his face, eyes closed (Exhausted? In a state of shock? Overcome by the realization of what his own role would be in the raising of the child? First time being present at a live birth? Oy vey!) Most interesting, perhaps, is the portrayal of the angels. They are swooping in, a great multitude, eagerly anticipating seeing the Holy Family. Each of the angels is an individual, each with distinct features, hair, and facial expressions. Some are men, some are women, some are children, some are young, some are old. No wings. They are all decidedly human. As they pass the Christ-child their facial expressions become more animated, filled with delight, wonder, and reverence. But they do not linger at the scene. As soon as they become witnesses they are off, presumably to to spread the word far and wide that the Savior of the world has at last been born.

Let me pose a question. If Christ himself arranged a Nativity scene how might that arrangement look? Would the shepherds be on one side and the Wise Men on the other? Would baby Jesus be at the center of the scene in a manger or cradled in his mother’s arms? Perhaps Joseph might be portrayed as holding his son for the first time with Mary radiantly and triumphantly looking on? Who is present? Is there anyone missing? Where does he position the angel(s)? Who is kneeling? Who is standing?

Might I suggest that it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Christ would not place himself at the center of the scene?

For the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Luke 4: 18).

The Gospels portray Jesus almost exclusively associating and living with people on the margins of his society: the impoverished, women, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, etc. Christ chose to be with the desperate and the broken, those consigned to the shadows, people pushed and shoved into the cracks and crevices of society in order to more easily be ignored and forgotten. I imagine then (and all Nativities are just holy imaginings) that’s it’s not implausible that Christ–ever the consummate Teacher-Exemplar–should place the infant replica of himself amidst his fellow shepherds on the perimeter of the scene.

Of course, Christ’s ongoing ministry is ultimately not to the economically poor and physically sick alone. Modern revelation and the words of contemporary servants of God are insistent that we are under covenant obligation to render assistance to the poor and those otherwise in need, but Christ’s concern is for all of us in our varying brokenness. We are all in need of healing and restoration. We are all, in one state or another, impoverished and sick, yearning for stronger hands to lift us up and envelop us in love and safety. In that very real sense we all inhabit the margins of the kingdom, as both healers and those in need of healing.

In this particular Nativity scene Christ does not occupy the geographical center of the scene. But because of who he was and is, the center has shifted; the heart of the scene is now on the margins, where Christ has insistently chosen to place himself in order to be one with us in our shattered conditions, to teach us to be healed and then to heal others in turn. He teaches us to turn to the fringes of our worlds where those who need the most help wait in desperation for us to reach out to them and gather them, as the Shepherd gathered his sheep, in our arms. Who, then, could occupy the spot the Christ-child vacates in the physical center of the scene, tenderly watched over by Joseph and Mary? Why not each one of us? Why not those who Christ begets as his own children through his atonement? Fitting, then, that Christ’s Nativity becomes the spiritual nativity of each one of us.

Comments

  1. Dizzy from flipping inside out. Jacob does it again.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Holy moley.

  3. OH Jacob… wow.

  4. Thank you Jacob, this is wonderful. It reminds me of that post which was the result of collaboration between Brad and Ronan, called A Kingdom of Nobodies.

  5. Great conclusion, Jacob. I was thinking as I was reading “there has to be SOME central character in a nativity arrangement, right? We can’t just leave that space empty…”

    Then you got me.

  6. Most excellent and insightful. Thank you, Jacob.

  7. Mommie Dearest says:

    This is most refreshing, sorely needed, and makes me feel at peace with being marginalized. Thank you for that gift today, Jacob.

  8. Beautifully expressed.

    (And I also love Brian Kershisnik’s Nativity- the two things that really get me are- like you pointed out- Joseph’s utter exhaustion and bewilderment and the wonder and joy visible on the faces of those passing by. There’s always been something simple, spare, and wonderful about Kershisnik’s work, and even in the business of this painting he still conveys that.)

  9. I think Christ would put God at the center, as that’s what He tended to do in His ministry. God would be flanked by Jesus’ Spiritual mother and His Physical mother.

    I agree that Jesus would probably put Himself in as just another shepherd.

  10. Speechless, Jacob. But yet so many thoughts.

    Thanks.

  11. Good thoughts, Jacob. I just saw the Kershisnik Nativity for the first time last week. I will say, I thought the dark baby looked freshly born, but not ethnically so; he was blotchy and purple, not yet beautiful or attractive to anyone but his parents, just like my own freshly born babies were. But as for your central point, that Christ has always loved and served those on the margins; to that I can only say amen.

  12. Love this, Jacob.

  13. Thank you, Jacob, for this gift.

  14. Antonio Parr says:

    Jacob:

    Your essay is absolutely beautiful, and something that I will return to again and again in the years to come. You have just added to my personal Christmas tradition. Thank you.

    (re: the Kershisnik painting — I remember seeing this at the BYU Museum a few years back. The painting is huge, and the image unforgettable. My only reservation is the absence of angels of color, which is a missed opportunity, as I question whether the heralding angels all looked as if they came from a Utah Valley ward . . . )

  15. Richard Gardner says:

    Nice thoughts. And yet, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6). He of all people understands that we must look to him, and that even as he associated with the poor and downtrodden, he was not exactly one of them; he was their Savior and they must consider him as above them if they wish to be saved.

  16. Lovely, Jacob. I have my students read an essay about the Kershizkik nativity (written by Sam Payne). Then we take a little field trip to BYU’s JFSB to see a large reproduction of the work. Last time, I noticed that one of Joseph’s arms embraces Mary’s shoulder, and she is holding his hand. In Joseph (as you point out), there is awe, amazement, the overwhelming sense of what his new responsibilities are, conveyed in the hand that covers part of his face. And there is that gentle expression of union between husband and wife, simply holding each other’s hands in the midst of angels and at the begining of a future which will be unspeakably glorious and unimaginably heartwrenching.

  17. I’ve just moved the Christ Child in our Natively off center. This was beautiful. Something to remember for years to come as the Nativity is set up and taken down each year. Thanks for this.

    P.S. I’m the only one I’ve ever met that does not like the Kershisnik painting. Ask me why sometime over Slab Pizza. The reasons are silly, but based upon claustrophobia and real anxiety about long lines.

  18. Sincere thanks, everyone, for responding positively. I wholeheartedly appreciate and treasure your replies.

    Mark: What was a Kingdom of Nobodies? Sounds like something I’d really appreciate.

    Frank: I didn’t cry nearly so hard this time from your comment. Thank you.

    Rachel: That’s a good point, especially considering how Mary and Joseph are depicted.

    Richard, #15: Of course Christ was a singular individual given a singular power and responsibility, but he was absolutely one of the poor and downtrodden. “He descended below all things in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth” (D&C 88:6-7). My reading of the condescension of God is unequivocally that Christ had to become one of us precisely in order to save us. This is why Alma 7 essentially states that Christ actually lacked one thing in order to effectively become a Savior: the empathy of enfleshment. “The Spirit knoweth all things” but it didn’t know any other way to be fully at-one with us than to become one of us. Christ is always the source and power of our salvation, but only because only he could fully understand what it was to be all of us, in essence, the only one to become fully and utterly human.

    Margaret: Excellent observation! I hadn’t even noticed that Mary was clutching Joseph’s other hand. That makes the scene even more tender and powerful. And the painting hanging in the JFSB was the first depiction of Kershisnik’s painting I saw.

    Steve: I’m really touched. Next week at lunch we’ll have to talk about the painting, as well as have another round of Moabite dialogue.

  19. No, SteveP, you’re not the only one- and for similar reasons. This post did help me look at it with new eyes, though.

  20. And the two women kneeling at the bedside? …..the Visiting Teachers, of course.

  21. Dean Meservy says:

    Excellent and provocative idea. Makes me want to put myself among the shepherds on the perimeter as well.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,516 other followers