If you’re like me, you still have your Nativity set up because the Magi just showed up and you want to enjoy them longer than just a day or two. I’m sure those sets will be boxed up by Valentine’s Day.
Looking at my Nativity scenes made me see how static images of our religious heritage can be, and yet when a certain 4-year-old I know threw away all those dusty notions of statues, I began to have second thoughts.
From my earliest memories as a child, I picture statues of Mary and Jesus on shelves in our home and a crucifix hanging in every room. Holy water fonts adorned with an angel were next to every light switch and holy cards from the funerals of my great-aunts and uncles, often with pictures of Jesus, were in an envelope on my desk. Of course, there was the annual set up of our Nativity, which we were not allowed to play with. The figures have always had a one-pose pillar-of-salt Lot’s-wife look.
One day during Advent my 4-year-old granddaughter, Isabelle, brought out her Fisher-Price “Little People Nativity Set.” Of course, she wanted to play with it, so we created as much of the story as possible, from building an inn out of a construction set, to finding additional characters from her Sesame Street collection, to hauling out all of her plastic food items. Bert became the innkeeper and Ernie stepped in to be Joseph — because Joseph had a staff and was designated the shepherd — and there was food for everybody.
It was so much fun teaching her the story of Jesus’ birth with this set. Once everyone was in their place, I narrated and Isabelle moved the pieces. Did you know that the Sesame Street character The Count is also a census taker? Me either. Or that the innkeeper felt so bad that he didn’t have room for the Holy Family so he made cupcakes and brought them over for everyone to enjoy? Well, that’s nice! Or that Mary and Jesus rode in the wagon that the donkey pulled? I did not know this.
When Jesus was born, Isabelle pressed the angel at the top of the stable to play “Away in a Manger.” We didn’t just sing the song. I learned the importance of dancing along, especially if you’re wearing your princess dress. Naturally, all the animals and people had to eat and there was more than enough for everybody. At some point, the innkeeper found room for them all, so he invited them to stay at what was curiously similar to a Sesame Street playhouse.
Did you know that the camel had to stay in a room by himself because he snored and did not want to wake Baby Jesus? Good idea! The shepherd and the sheep (who were quiet) stayed with Joseph, Mary and Jesus because Jesus likes sheep, who also kept him warm. We recreated the story several times that day and Isabelle now knows the Nativity story well.
Children enjoy acting out many of their favorite stories and it ought to be no different for our religious history. That’s where the change in me happened. I spent my life looking at and praying with crucifixes, statues of angels and saints, and of course my own Nativity sets, but I will admit I never really added much life to them. Until now.
We don’t have to act out entire plays but I like the idea of engaging my imagination to see Jesus, the saints and even angels as having real lives, interacting with others so they can enter my spiritual life more deeply. However, I will reserve the dancing for the days I’m with Isabelle.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)