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,
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.