(By Alistair Begg, The Gospel Coalition). I used to be dismissive of nativity scenes. You know the sort—the perfect arrangements of little figurines that start popping up in mall displays and outside churches this time of year.
First, who can relate to this unrealistic depiction? Mary always looks remarkably unexhausted for someone who’s just given birth, and the animals look surprisingly unbothered at being kept from their feeding trough.
Second, and worse, is the potential for trivializing what nativity displays aim to capture. Nativity displays often sentimentalize the scene, such that we think, Ahh, that’s sweet. I like Christmas. But there’s nothing in it that arrests you. Nothing that sets you back on your heels. Nothing that says, This moment changed everything. This night, heaven broke into earth. This was a night of glory and terror and pain and majesty and awe, all centered on the Son of God in human form taking his first breath, crying his first cry, invading earth to save his people.
There’s nothing in a nativity scene that really says, Behold!
So there was a time I happily dismissed nativity scenes as unrealistic and trivial.
But not any more.
Offense, Apathy, and Awe
I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.
In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal: “This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with him one way or another.” The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.