Getting Hands-On with Jesus
The donkey in the creche of my growing up years has tottered to Bethlehem on three legs for over forty years, the cow’s nose chipped off long ago in a skirmish with a sheep, Mary’s hand has been inexplicably amputated, and the Baby Jesus sleeps cradled on a wad of cotton in a cardboard match box. The Christmas miracle was that my mother, a definitive type A for whom things needed to be perfect, was so happy to see us playing with the Holy Family that she merely glued the porcelain pieces together, shrugged off the lost causes, and found an substitute for the Christ Child’s crib. I love that Nativity Scene—so many happy hours hands-on with Jesus. So, when Mark and I got married, I knew I wanted our Nativity Scene to be child-friendly, just in case.
It was a wise decision.
The Christmas Maddie was a year old, she was enamored with the Nativity Scene, but not the baby Jesus or His parents. Not even the angels with their magical wings. Instead she toddled all over our apartment with the animals making their corresponding sound. The cow mooed in the bathtub, the horse neighed in her crib, the sheep baaed while I prepared dinner. She loved all the animals, except the camel remained undisturbed at the edge of the manger.
But then my husband demonstrated how camels spit.
After that, as soon as we rolled her stroller back into the apartment from an outing, she’d scream bloody murder for her freedom. As quick as we could get the buckle was undone, she’d wobble as fast as she could, still fully layered in her coat, hat, and mittens, to the Nativity Scene to be reunited with the camel. And to start spitting. Which she did endlessly, all over the apartment, and all over the city, anywhere she spotted a camel in a Nativity display. The act always cracked her up, so our abode was extra merry that holiday season.
The Nativity Scene continued to fascinate her, and the year her brother Joseph was born, it took on a new dimension. Suddenly she had a real baby Jesus, even if he did sit in a bouncy seat instead of lie in the manger. Maddie was always Mary, and she usually appointed her dad as Joseph. (On very rare occasions, Mark would be told to just watch and “Joseph Joseph rather than Bible-Joseph” would play the “daddy” from his bouncy seat perch.)
She’d put the miniature donkey from the creche between her knees and hobble to Bethlehem (our living room) with Mark, his head draped in a kitchen towel, by her side. In Bethlehem, Maddie would give birth as a baby doll was midwifed from under her shirt. That baby was immediately tossed into a corner, so her brother could assume the role, kicking in excitement. The six-inch tall shepherds and their tiny sheep would be moved from the pasture (the hallway) to adore the fat baby who kicked so enthusiastically in his bouncy manger. The miniature wisemen and their camels would come from the East (the fireplace), inching slowly across the hearth, always with a stop for their gift of mince pies for the actress who portrayed Mary.
Maddie cried when we packed the Nativity Scene away.
The following year, the Nativity Scene was dusted off as usual, but other wonders of the season had begun to encroach on the magic of the stable. In an actual Nativity Play that year, Maddie’s time that season was spent practicing her wing flapping and belting out Christmas carols. The hard resin wings of our Nativity Scene angel just didn’t hold the same allure as gauzy appendages of her own. Joseph followed his big sister around devotedly, and as she didn’t often pause in front of the manger in our hallway, neither did he.
For a few years, the Baby stayed in His crib the whole of Advent and Christmas, the shepherds didn’t misplace any sheep, and the camels remained silent. It made me a little sad, and I wondered if Joseph would ever be as entranced by the Nativity Scene as his sister had.
I shouldn’t have worried.
The year Joseph was four, the moment the Nativity Scene emerged from its box, he was hooked. He spent hours moving the pieces around and making up stories, just as I had done as a child. The shepherds occasionally parachuted in to the birth, the sheep slid down the steep pitch of the roof to the general vicinity of the crib, and the wisemen were often poised to topple like dominoes, landing at the foot of the Holy Infant. After bedtime every night, I would reassemble the scene into a more traditional tableau. The act satisfied my own type A tendencies and allowed me to track down any missing pieces.
As the excitement of Christmas drew closer, bedtime became increasingly trying. There was just too much fun to be had to waste time sleeping. One night, I poured a much-needed glass of wine and wandered over to the Nativity Scene to begin the nightly cleanup. I had to laugh. Bob the Builder and his sidekick Wendy were gathered with the shepherds to gaze at the Baby, and the digger Scoop was positioned near the cow, his bucket poised high in the air. Taking a sip of wine, I began to remove the colorful cartoon cast while humming Bob’s theme song.
“No, Mommy, no!” rang out behind me. I whirled around. There stood my son, all pj-ed up but no longer in bed, looking very alarmed. His eyes fixated on the characters in my hands.
“Oh,” I said airily, waving Bob and crew around. “I’m just moving Bob and his friends so Jesus can get a good night sleep. You can play with them all tomorrow.”
“But, Mommy,” Joseph said anxiously. “Jesus needs Bob and Scoop!”
I must have looked puzzled, so Joseph elaborated, “to help Him keep the stable clean!”
Whatever words had been on my lips—probably “get back in bed”—died, and I looked at the figurines in my hand and then at the stable in front of me. Joseph was right.
Jesus could use Bob and friends, just as He can use any of us. I turned back to my son and held out my palms.
“I think you’re right, Buddy,” I agreed. “Let’s put these guys back in the manger, and then I’ll tuck you back into bed.”
Solemnly, Joseph took the brightly colored characters from me, walked over to the manger, and carefully placed each one in the location best suited for their job. Then he turned to me and raised his arms. As I picked him up, he nestled his head against my shoulder, and whispered, “Good night, Jesus,” followed by our nightly refrain, “I love you to the moon and back.”
After I tucked Joseph in again, I dimmed the lights in the living room, switched on the Christmas tree, and stood in front of the Nativity Scene. Somehow, even type A me had to admit it looked a little more real with Bob, Wendy, and Scoop there. I thought back to all the varied use the Nativity Scene had gotten and smiled. The characters in the tableau had once been living, breathing creatures. Surely the cow had mooed during the birth, and the horse had kept the Baby awake with its incessant neighing. I bet that toddler Jesus was as delighted as Maddie had been to learn camels spit. He might have even practiced spitting Himself!
Beginning that long-ago night in Bethlehem, God wanted us to be hands-on with Jesus—even if it meant the scene wouldn’t stay picture-perfect. Even if it meant the wisemen brought gifts of mince pies to Mary, the shepherds had to share the stage with cartoon characters of the future, and Jesus wound up sleeping in a cardboard matchbox. That is exactly why He came.