A story on the news last week told of a Methodist church in central Texas who has staged an “extravagant living nativity” every year out under the stars.
Instead of having their pastor stand out in the cold, the use a 1959 recording of Perry Como narrating the story.
“Yes, the three men on the camels are the three wise men,” says Como in his velvety smooth voice. “The new star guides them to Bethlehem to a little baby lying in a manger. There the three wise men present gifts to the Christ child.”
It’s a scene not unfamiliar to any of us, although I like the idea of having someone with a lovely voice, unaffected by the cold do the narrating. In fact the story could have been set anywhere. Except that this church happened last year to try modernize the creche. They realized, correctly, that the creche was a tool developed in the mid 13th century to transmit the gospel. In this way, it is no more historical, nor any less true, than the story of Jesus feeding a thousand people with a few loaves of bread. In other words, while a scene like our modern day creche never happened, it does tell a true story.
My question today, is what is that story? Why happens when we make and view creches?
I have no easy answer to that. But let me relate three anecdotes that may either individually or collectively bring us to a sense of the gospel of the creche.
I was having dinner with the rest of my family a few weeks ago, and as is our habit, someone had to get up midway through the meal to find a dictionary. Our conversation had led us to wonder what the word creche meant? Where did it come from. Obviously it was French, but what did the french word refer to?
Turns out that the word has three definitions.
The third definition is the Christmas nativity scene, so that was not helpful. We already knew that.
But the first two definitions were helpful.
The second definition was “a public nursery, where the young children of poor women are cared for during the day, while their mothers are at work.”
And the first, and likely the oldest definition is simply the public care of children.
You don’t have to remember these definitions, but I’ll bet you said, “Aha” to yourself when you heard them. From the beginning when St. Francis of Assisi began setting up creches for people to observe on their daily routines during the Christmas season, it has been a symbol of the kind of care we know to be best and a reminder at the same time that our human nature so often turns our better angels out into the cold.
One who did not, so far as I can tell, turn those angels out into the cold, was the donor of the very creche set that we use today. Betty Carr was given this set many years ago by her niece-in-law – Caroline Perly. Betty wanted to share it and so she gave it to the church. She could not let such a piece of art be private, but it would be for the public care of souls at the Waterbury Congregational Church.
Care — said the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger — was the foundational stone of all philosophy. For him you could not talk about what it meant to be a human being without talk about how it is that we humans can care for one another. That may seem rather simple and obvious but the implications of this notion are not widely accepted because the require us to think ourselves in relation to a comprehensive Being. Heidegger talks about the requirement placed upon those of us who would do more than wander in the darkness. He says that if we are to find our way once more into the nearness of God then we must the connection between the public and the private — care, he says discloses that relation.
One of the many take home lines from Christmas eve comes from our Christmas Carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “Where yearning souls long to be whole, the dear Christ enters in.” The story of the birth of Christ, with or without the creche is the story of the of the longing for resolution between the public and the private — and care is precisely that bridge.
In 1982 members of the African central committee of the World Council of Churches wrote a document called an African Call for Life. In that document they take a long hard look at this relation between what they say they do, as Christians in Africa what is happening on the ground in Africa. A child in Ghana is interviewed for this study. He is not properly nourished. But they ask him, “Who is Jesus Christ?” He reply is breathtaking:
“Oh! Jesus. I have heard of that name. You say he is the Life of the World. Life! But I am hungry. I am lifeless. There is no milk in my mother’s breasts. She is sick and weak. They tell me some people called “Red Cross,” are sending or have sent some powdered milk. But I am hungry. I am dying. You say that Jesus is the life of the World? But I am dying. Can Jesus help me to keep alive?”
The touching part of the creche is easy for us to enjoy. The animals talking to one another, enjoy the company of their human counterparts. It is the vision of peace we hope for. But care — the other concept in the creche calls us into the future — to bring a mature Jesus into a modern world. Not to talk about the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a miracle — but to do the loaves and fishes as a hard, but necessary task.
The creche says — you are, by your very essence — care. Now honor that Being of which you are a part and live caringly into the new day. Amen.