December 16, 2007

Christmas Controversy

There is a big controversy at my home church about the manger scene. For more years than I can remember, it has been a kind of home-made affair, with department store mannequins dressed up and placed in a small shed that is put in place every December. The figures had gotten worn and old, and they were replaced in the last year or so -- by more mannequins. It was getting difficult to haul the shed out each year and then put it back, so someone made a small trailer. The whole thing now sits on that and can be rolled into place.

The figures are strange looking – no question about it. The angel of the Lord has a decidedly Dolly Parton-ish air. The shepherds (but one of them might be a wise man – hard to know) have been described as looking like stereotypes of Taliban officials. Mary is almost completely covered, as though she were a little embarrassed by all of it. And that seems to be the reaction of some church members – obviously not those who bought the new mannequins and their costumes. The town is talking, and they feel they are a laughingstock. Some of them wish they could just have a nice plastic lighted nativity like the big brick church down the street. Instead they have this one that is in poor taste and doesn’t fit with most folks’ views about what the Holy Family and its visitors ought to look like.

I’ve never been a fan of the mannequin manger scene, but I’ve been pondering the reactions to the new set up, and here is what I think: Maybe it isn’t inappropriate at all. Maybe it is closer to the spirit of the first Christmas than any of us realize. After all, there was nothing tasteful about the original. Maybe it was a crowded and cramped space; and maybe putting the manger scene on a trailer is a metaphor that reminds us that the stable was a “vehicle” for the coming of God into the world. If you met those first shepherds on the street, maybe they would look more than a little scary. And if the angel of the Lord appears as a woman of abundance, then maybe that has something to say about the nature of heaven, where there is always an overflowing “more.”

And here is the other thing. That this is a controversy strikes me as wholly and completely appropriate. We’ve domesticated what happened in Bethlehem until our Jesus has become plastic and still, clean and bright and quiet, not at all the kind of trouble-maker he turned out to be in real life. People then talked about him and how out of place he was, how he seemed to attract the wrong kind of attention, how he wasn’t like what the good religious people had come to expect. And, even though it makes me wince, I have decided to give thanks for this strange manger scene that has everybody talking.

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