Sometimes we prefer to hold onto the precious baby Jesus in the manger and put away the nativity set until the next year. Rev. John Weems asks: How can we honor God by loving our neighbor as the grown up Jesus insisted? The service included uplifting music from Vernon Bush (of Glide and Voice Church Inspire Choir) and Dave Scott.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
While return lines at stores seem to be shorter than they were before the gift card took over so much of Christmas, re-gifting is alive and well.
Be honest, have you ever re-gifted something? Better yet, do you have a bin or drawer full of items you can give when you are rushing to a party, or maybe just don’t really like the birthday boy or girl? I appreciate your honesty, and trust that God forgives us for not fully appreciating every As Seen on TV gift we receive.
One gift I do appreciate year after year is a Nativity scene my mom gave our family. I also have little sets from Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, and another from a little independent shop you probably haven’t heard of – Costplus. Regardless of the lack of historical precision of nativity sets, I appreciate the fact that they are Christ-centered on a holiday that seems to reach a new level of excess each year. That said, even the Nativity scene industry is out of control.
An article in The Atlantic two weeks ago shared the creative approach taken by many with nativities including zombies, cats, Star Wars characters, and even an Irish Nativity with magi bringing gifts of a pot o’ gold, a four leaf clover, and you guessed it . . . Guinness! In “Your Christmas Nativity Scene is a Lie,” writer Jonathan Merritt goes on to point out flaws in accounts of whether the manger was in a cave, or more likely, in the lower level of a home of Joseph or Mary’s relative. This lower level likely would have been a humble space shared with animals, though no one really knows exactly what types of animals. (I’m pretty sure the Calvary live nativity shared by our children on Christmas Eve is accurate with the inclusion of my favorite animal, a giraffe J).
Merritt also reports the challenges presented by the presentation of the Holy Family as fair skinned, often with blue eyes. This problematic trend really took off in the mid-19th century, according Edward Blum and Paul Harvey in The Color of Christ: “The transformation of Jesus from light to white in the young United States made him . . . a cultural icon of white power.” While I’m at it, I have to point out that as beautiful as our stained glass windows are, I wouldn’t bet a lot of money that Jesus looked quite so much like a Southern California surfer. As a Middle Eastern man, his features would have been darker than the typical Euro-American depictions.
We all tend to create a mental image of Jesus that works for us. Merritt does write that this can be good, allowing Jesus to be accessible to everyone regardless of background.
The reality is that many prefer to keep him as the baby in a manger, storing the nativity set until we sing “Away in a Manger” again the following year. If we do allow Jesus to grow up, we can all-too-easily make him our buddy who endorses our ways, walking and talking and joking along with us. While I am grateful for the images of Jesus in these ways and do believe that the fully human and fully divine Jesus cares for us on a personal level, his primary mission wasn’t to befriend us and support the status quo.
In today’s Scripture lesson, part of the three year Lectionary cycle of Bible passages read in thousands of churches around the world, Jesus is a 12-year-old boy. Let’s revisit the second half of the passage from Luke 2:46-52 and read it together:
46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.48When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50But they did not understand what he said to them.51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
52And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.
This is the only glimpse we have in the official Bible canon of Jesus as a young boy. People were naturally fascinated, wanting to know what happened between ages 12 and 30. Biblical scholar Paul Achtemeier explains that these writings came later and include the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (distinct from the better known Gospel of Thomas). In the Infancy Gospel, five-year-old Jesus creates birds from mud and makes them fly, stretches a board to assist his father’s carpentry, and resurrects a boy he had been accused of pushing off a roof.
While these accounts are interesting, let’s return to the story from the Gospel of Luke today. Here is Jesus, coming into his own. He likely had done some amazing things witnessed by his parents. Let’s remember that just three days ago we celebrated Mary’s receipt of a divine message and birth. Mary no doubt remembered this, but still had to function as a parent of a human child. She is upset that Jesus has disrespected her by staying behind and causing great anxiety. Jesus does return back to Nazareth with his parents and lived as an obedient son, but the foreshadowing was there for all to see. Young Jesus of Nazareth had a mission beyond serving as an Earthly carpenter. Mary “treasured all these things in her heart,” but would have justifiably longed for the days of her son’s infancy. Jesus was no longer the baby in the manger. His status as a gift to the world was becoming more evident.
What will we do with Jesus?
Will we place him back in the manger and put away the box until next year. Or will we balance the beauty of the Nativity scene with the challenging realities that God’s Gift to the world became?
St. Francis of Assisi, the man after whom our city is named, apparently had great affection for the Nativity. Inspired after visiting a cave outside of Bethlehem many believe to be the location of Jesus’ birth, Francis created the first Nativity scene in 1223 in a cave in Greccio, Italy. He invited people to a mass in the cave, drawing one unexpected visitor according to St. Bonaventure:
“A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth.”
Throughout history, people have reported encounters like the soldier who crossed paths with St. Francis and then decided to put down his weapons, being called to reflect Christ’s light in the world.
The heart of the Nativity inspires us to remember that God appears when and where we least expect our Creator—from battlefields, to boardrooms, to the least glamorous parts of the world. The heart of the message of grown up Jesus requires us to show up with love, even when the world seems to be weighing us down with too much to bear. May we share him as the gift of God with Us, responding with selfless love to our sisters and brothers.
 Jonathan Merritt, “Your Christmas Nativity Scene Is a Lie,” The Atlantic, Dec. 13, 2015.
 Paul Achtemeier in Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On the Word, Year C (4 Volume Set). 4 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pg. 168-169.