Dec 1, 2023
"Maybe it was that I, myself, had just given birth—but as I held the perfectly composed Mary in my hand, she no longer felt believable."
A bejeweled nativity scene sits atop our mantle every year at Christmastime. Despite baby Jesus’ missing arm (somewhere in the handing down, he came down one hand), the whole crèche is quite elegant. The camel looks regal in his saddle, the livestock are radiant, and the three wise men wear gems upon their fashionable turbans. Mary is glowing in golden frocks—naturally—and Joseph remains stoic, despite having just witnessed the horrific, beautiful shock called childbirth. All of the figures are white, clean, and blushing.
I studied each figure this year as I unwrapped them from fragments of bubble wrap and paper towels, blowing a dead fly from Jesus’ cradle. In past seasons, I have felt a swelling in my throat as I unveiled and arranged the scene with nostalgic care.
But this year felt different.
Maybe it was that I, myself, had just given birth—but as I held the perfectly composed Mary in my hand, she no longer felt believable. She was no warm-blooded woman who had just had a baby without medical care or epidural; she was just cold and ceramic. The same went for the wooly sheep, gleaming white despite living in a barn, and baby Jesus, looking resplendent with his crown of golden hair and impressive pectoral muscles.
I’m sure these figurines were fashioned by well-intentioned people—devout Christians, even—who meant for such finery to display the glory of the Lord and the divinity of his birth. Won’t these look beautiful on the mantle, I bet they sighed, imagining families across the world gazing upon the flaxen scene and feeling the comforts of Christmas.
But in that moment, I was struck by the irony that this crèche meant to point us toward Jesus’ wondrous demonstration of humility had the odd effect of removing it, instead. These figurines were decked out and dignified; they weren’t at all the type one might feel akin to. How odd, I thought. I want to be drawn to these, but they feel so…lofty. I couldn’t help but notice that this nativity’s portrayal of Jesus made me feel distant from him, looking so magisterial there in his manger. Jesus’ birth should remind us that holiness cohabitates with the common. So why do we feel inclined to dress up the humble bits in emeralds and gold?
Sure: a bedazzled manger looks lovely amongst our twinkling lights and hand-me-down heirlooms, but do we inadvertently set Jesus aside when we make him look like the least believable human of all time? Do we begin to see him as ethereal—with his flowing locks and bulging biceps—and fail to grasp that he was born in the same bloody fashion that we all were, that his entrance to the world was plebeian as the rest of ours? When we admire his ceramic countenance upon our mantles, do we miss that God actually stooped down and became fully man—coming down to us so we could walk alongside him? Have we still not grasped that the Lord doesn’t give a hoot about finery or putting on airs?
It is Christ’s example of humility, and not haughtiness, that draws us toward him. And yet, we perpetuate the narrative that he is untouchable and unlike us by adorning him with jewels. We reject the revelation that Paul writes about in Phillipians: “...Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man” (2:5-7). Jesus demonstrated his total power in the way he neither clutched it nor strutted it about; he could become a baby who relied on his mother for milk and diaper changes without losing an ounce of his majesty.
Gaudy portrayals of Jesus’ birth reveal we don’t understand his true majesty—or his heart—at all. They remind me of the final scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy and the antagonist Walter Donovan both guess which cup is the Holy Grail. Amidst a dazzling selection of chalices, Donovan chooses a golden goblet that’s set with emeralds, while Indy reaches for a dusty and well-worn cup in the back. Donovan drinks from his goblet and instantly turns to a mummified shell of himself. (In the words of the ancient knight protecting the grail: “He chose…poorly.”)
Indy, on the other hand, chooses wisely, and in doing so, avoids mummification and uses it to save his mortally wounded father. The lesson from this scene is clear: Donovan failed to choose the correct cup because he did not actually know Jesus; if he had, he would have known that he is “gentle and lowly in heart,” and that the humblest cup actually represented his power best.
Why does it matter? you may be asking. Why can’t this girl just sip her eggnog and leave our pretty nativities alone?
It’s because I desperately need Jesus to be real.
I need him to be a man who ate fish and warmed himself beside fires and wept aloud and bled red blood. I, like Thomas, need to be able to hold his hands in my own and put my fingers in the places where he was pierced so that I can believe that resurrection is really true and not just some happy fable we can tell the children.
I can’t make do with pretty, substanceless things. I am not comforted by white ceramic skin and a muscular baby in his shimmering trough. I am not kindred to a Mary who smiles as though she didn’t just give birth in a cave. And I have no business with rubies or emeralds, royalty or riches.
I need Jesus, the baby who cluster feeds and pulls his mother’s hair. I need Mary and Joseph, the young kids who had a baby together and weren’t even married. I need to see sheep and cows with manure stuck to their coats, and a camel that looks travel-worn and moody. I need to see wise men with weathered skin and relieved faces, because they trusted God about this baby and they half-can’t-believe he’s really here.
And the rest of the world needs that too. I can say that with confidence, because isn’t that the very reason Jesus bothered to humble himself in the first place, to empty himself of pretense, to take on a form we could relate to? So that we—dusty and broken and limping as we are—could somehow look at the Master of the Universe and believe we could draw close? We have a high priest that can sympathize with our weakness. This truth is ground-breaking, counterintuitive, ingenious, earth-shattering. His ability to sympathize with our weakness is one of his greatest gifts to humanity—so why are we so hesitant to portray it?
So I guess this is just me, on behalf of the drunks and the postpartum mothers, making the case for a crèche that reveals Jesus’ humanity. It is me, along with the tow-truck drivers and nail technicians and juvenile delinquents, who need to see the earthiness of his birth. We do not need more imagery that makes Jesus inaccessible or unbelievable. Keep the jewels and wooly white animals. Give us instead reminders of how he entered this world amidst dirty surroundings, so that he could grow to walk with dirty people, washing our filthy feet and filthier hearts. Yes, this is the Jesus this world needs. This is the Jesus that God actually sent. And this is the Jesus I want to gaze upon—at Christmas, and all the other times of the year, too.
Deidre Braley is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Maine with her husband and two children, and most days can be found savoring an overly cheesy bagel or drinking a second cup of coffee while working on her weekly newsletter, The Second Cup. She is a strong believer in the power of poetry, picking roadside flowers, and blowing past small talk at all costs. Follow her on Instagram @deidresecondcup or on Facebook—she loves meeting new friends.