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.
The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.
Actually, it may be that the people who most often miss the message of the nativity scene are Christians. How easy it is to rush through the whole Christmas experience—the music in the mall, the services in your church, the presents in your house—and be left with sweet sentiments but no real worship in your heart. How easy it is to sing along to “Once in Royal David’s City”—
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all.
—and feel neither awe nor offense, but simply nothing much at all.
My point is that it’s not only non-Christians who trivialize Christmas. It’s us. The claims the Bible makes about the first Christmas are either fact or fiction, so they’re either awesome or offensive. They should move us to worship or to resistance. But so often Christians seem to be pursuing a pristine Christmas experience that more reflects the store-bought nativity scene than the costly and messy account of the Bible.
Perhaps those outside the church who feel threatened by nativity scenes understand the meaning of Christmas more than those in our churches who feel very little about them.
Stop. Think. Talk.
So when you see a nativity scene this Christmas, stop. Think. This really happened. God sent his Son. He really came. Of course it didn’t look quite like it’s been portrayed, but it happened.
And don’t forget to talk about it. How can we say our culture doesn’t care about Christmas like it used to if we’re too busy to have conversations about the eternity-changing nature of what we’re so busy celebrating?
This is why I don’t dismiss nativity scenes anymore. I need all the bridges between the gospel and the culture that I can get. These little figurines can do a big work of reminding people that there’s a God who loved this broken world so much that he sent his Son into it. As our neighbors are less familiar than ever with the biblical narrative of redemption, Christmas is about the only time when they may give the good news of Jesus a passing thought.
This Christmas, think about what this messy scene of God’s grace means to you. Ask non-Christians and other friends what they make of the nativity in your neighborhood. Ask what they make of the baby at the center of it all, and tell them who he is to you. Seize the opportunity to connect this pivotal historical moment to today.
So if a nativity scene helps you to share the gospel with someone this Christmas, or remember it yourself, then praise the Lord. Even if Mary really should look more tired.
Editors’ note: Alistair Begg is author of Christmas Playlist: Four Songs That Bring You to the Heart of Christmas (The Good Book Company, 2016).