Through the years I have enjoyed observing countless living nativity scenes during the holiday season. Most of these scenes are staged on the lawns of church campuses or they are incorporated into annual Christmas pageants. Many of the scenes include both human characterization and a menagerie of live animals.

The cast of animals varies according to the size of the production and the geographic placement of the scene. A small production in a rural church, for example, could include Mrs. Smith’s dairy cow and Mr. Jones’ Billy goat. A larger production could feature animals of Middle Eastern origin that are on loan from a local zoo.

I have to admit, it’s quite intriguing to see peculiar characters like a caravan of live camels traversing the aisles of a church. It could make one wonder why we do not see more peculiar characters walking the aisles and hallways of the church all year long.

However, the most fascinating thing to me about living nativity portrayals is the casting of human characters. Most of us actually know very little about the apparel of first century Palestine. Therefore, costuming can range from a professional wardrobe obtained through a local drama department or theatre, to a more amateurish wardrobe hastily formed from the closets, attics, and garages of the participants.

I have seen boy angels and girl angels dressed in white baptismal robes, tinseled halos and decorative wings that were created by carefully re-shaped coat hangers wrapped in butcher paper. I have marveled at cleanly shaven shepherds, accompanied by an occasional shepherdess, adorned in multicolored bathrobes and wearing headdresses made from leftover rope from the garage and towels purchased from the clearance table at a local department store.

The shepherds are strategically placed across from gift-bearing wise men, who are dressed like kings in royal regalia. According to the Bible the wise men arrived many months later, but in our “willing suspension of disbelief” we have grown comfortable with wise men showing up prematurely at the living nativity for a Kodak moment.

But the central feature of every living nativity is the manger, usually a rough-hewn wooden trough or a wicker clothesbasket containing the Christ child who is positioned in the spotlight gaze of the adoring parents. The roles of Mary and Joseph are usually portrayed by a teen couple, or a young husband and wife, or the occasional father daughter combination. And the role of baby Jesus is usually assigned to one or more of the freshest newborns in the church.

Through the years I have seen blonde Marys and brunette Marys, hippie Josephs and balding Josephs, and both cooing babies and crying babies cast as the infant king.

Interestingly, this year at our church, in our preschool’s living nativity, baby Jesus was exceptionally beautiful. She really was. She was beautiful. Her name was Joy. You see, in our church it doesn’t matter whether a boy baby or a girl baby plays the part of Jesus. Because we want all of our boys and girls to grow up to be more like Jesus, we tend to start them out on this journey early. So this year, there was literally “Joy” in the manger.

Maybe one of the reasons Jesus came into the world in the first place was so that all of us, the peculiar and ordinary, the young and the old, and the boys and the girls could find Joy in the manger. After all, the Joy in the manger is intended to be Joy for the whole world.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. Luke 2:10 KJV

Barry Howard serves as senior minister of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla.

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