Setting up my nativity has been The Thing Which Determines It's Christmas since 1989 when my mom bought my brother and I each a ceramic set. There's nothing overtly special about it--your basic Mary-Joseph-Baby-Shepherd-Wise-Men-Sheep-Cow-Donkey setup--but it is mine, and as a child it was what set Christmas in motion. I'd strive to set it up better each year: first on the highboy, then on top of the television; one year the angel dangled precariously from a string fixed to the ceiling; the year I learned the wise men weren't present at the birth, they were removed to a nearby windowsill, en route. I think I like that these simple building blocks--a kneeling woman, a sleeping child, a shepherd with a sheep at his feet--come together to speak a story.
A few years ago I had one of my most memorable Bible study nights with a small group of teenage girls. We wrote out a list of everything we thought we remembered from the Christmas story, and then went to the biblical accounts, and talked about how we have fleshed them out. Sarah misspoke and said she remembered the wise men brought gold and incest, Hannah was scandalized when I implied that camels might not have been present at the birth, and we unpacked the story and put it back together again, each of us coming away with a new perspective.
Since then, I've frequently found myself paring down the nativity to just the actual birth--a young woman, a faithful husband, and a newborn child that was only partly theirs. But as I've thought about it this year, I've found myself drawn to the other pieces, the other elements of this story. In looking for simple decorations to make, I saw an idea for three silhouettes on a wall--Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; the shepherds; the wise men. And the more I thought about it, the more that resonated. As with most great stories, this is not a single snapshot, but a collision of multiple storylines, not at one moment but as part of a greater plot. A faithful woman is chosen, a priest is struck mute, a man plans separation, a cousin celebrates, astronomers find a sign, the man makes a selfless choice, a census is ordered, a king schemes, an innkeeper refuses, angels sing, shepherds shudder, and a baby is born. The shepherds and astronomers find him, the king does not. This is a story about Jesus, but it is really a half dozen stories of dozens of people, all pointing toward but not neatly meeting at a cave of a stable in Bethlehem. Each individual had their story to tell; we just get a bird's-eye view.
A last piece that caught me a few days ago: the whole of Israel was waiting for a Messiah to rescue them and rule over the earth, but none knew to go looking to a homeless couple on the road. In listening to some Christmas standards the other night, I found myself feeling some of the frustration of Heaven--such a huge, history-changing moment, and nobody knew to come celebrate. And I wonder if that's why the shepherds got their invitation. Heaven had some major rejoicing to do, and so they took the party to a nearly-deserted field outside a small town in Roman-occupied Israel and scared the crap out of some shepherds. It was all they could do to keep it corralled even that much. They went to a few nobodies and sent them so that somebody, at least, could stand in witness and agreement as Mary and Joseph stared into Heaven's own eyes. It was a story too good not to share.