Sponsored by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, tis’ the season for neat nativity scenes after Mary’s labor and delivery.

During Advent, I am unwrapping Jesus, stripping away the ceramic finish of this both natural and miraculous event. I am questioning every hair on Mary’s head combed neatly into place. Every quiet and immovable animal will also be interrogated.

If the story of her labor and delivery fits into your worship program, I am calling a business meeting. Because this is not reality.

Paintings, sculptures and especially nativity scenes, the way that Jesus has historically been presented to the masses has always troubled me. The way that we, Christians, share his birth narrative continues to generate personal disbelief.

No gender reveal party thanks to the angel’s visitation. No need to pick a name or imagine the kind of person he’ll be since the prophets have already declared it. I’m sure that this is not the way that Mary imagined her first pregnancy.

A birth announcement, Advent declares, “Jesus is coming” but not in the apocalyptic, rapture-ready sense. No, Mary is in labor, screaming, “Don’t touch me!” After a few deep breaths, she says, “Joseph, it’s time! He’s coming!”

So, we unwrap our manger scene and place it on the table, mantle or church lawn, complete with shepherds, sheep, angels and additional barnyard animals. We are ready to visit him and the new parents.

How did we make this leap? I have never liked the imagery, the false narrative that it feeds, suggesting that because God is involved, Mary experiences no pain or suffering.

My siblings will agree and provide numerous examples of me breaking with tradition. Before puberty – and, thus, ahead of my time – I told them that Santa Claus wasn’t real and made them stay up late so they could see our parents putting gits under the Christmas tree.

I just don’t see the point of lying or why adults do so in these cases. Give credit where credit is due, and it should go to Mary.

Giving birth is messy. So are the details of Jesus’ life, even with the light shining directly over the manger.

For Mary, he was an unplanned pregnancy. Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, but this fact we put away privately. Jesus was born to a stepfather, which would make him a member of a non-traditional family.

We clean up baby Jesus and any indication of his parents’ poverty just in time for Christmas. They saved thousands of dollars in health care costs with their “in a manger” delivery. Let’s celebrate!

Cue the Christmas pageantry, complete with a nativity play. We applaud the children who managed to remember their lines and not break down and cry. Then, we rush them out of the sanctuary.

“Would you like some juice and cookies? It’s a small token of our appreciation for you not making a scene.”

Does anyone else see the irony? Shouldn’t Mary and the child be screaming? If not, then what exactly am I expected to believe?

In Greccio, Italy, the nativity scene was first created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. The mystic and Catholic friar who rejected his parents’ wealth and dedicated his life to works of charity wanted to create an opportunity for “the kindling of devotion” to the birth of Christ rather than capitalist consumption.

The nativity scene could serve as a counternarrative. Recently, there have been “protest nativities.” They call attention to the injustices experienced by persons marginalized and minoritized in our communities.

In 2018, “baby Jesus” was placed in a cage by a Texas couple. In 2019, churches around the country followed suit, putting the entire family in a cage and in some cases, the wise men were not able to visit him due to a wall.

In 2020, Claremont United Methodist Church positioned the nativity scene in front of a painting that reminded viewers that “Black Lives Matter.” I appreciate such thoughtful critiques of the Herods of our day.

Calls for justice and equality were on open display, which is what Jesus’ birth announced.

So, what will your nativity scene look like this year?

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