Years ago, friends of ours relocated to the Appalachian Highlands from the Midwest. Recently, we visited together. They asked if it is an Appalachian thing for fully lit and decorated Christmas trees to be put out on people’s front porches. Not having seen this since I left the Deep South, I suggested that maybe this is something from Southern Living slowly creeping northward into the Appalachians, like cuisine or fire ants.
Our friends shared that, in the Midwest, every church has live Nativities during the month of December. That means bitter cold. One friend recalls playing the role of the Star, hanging from a harness while wearing a snowsuit, a face mask and mittens (while having badly to go to the bathroom), all in order to represent the miraculous Star o’er Bethlehem. She wanted to know if churches in Appalachia do this.
Growing up in Appalachia, I did not witness “every” church holding a live Nativity. Still, one congregation in our community had immense pageants. The year they moved out of the sanctuary to the fairgrounds, they had live camels. Somehow the pageant moved from re-member-ing — literally, “putting back in the body again” — the story of Jesus’ birth to that of spectacle and awe.
Incarnate. God is in the flesh. In the body of Jesus born in a Bethlehem stable, laid in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, God came in the flesh to be at one with us. God with us. Emmanuel. Simple messages and complex theologies at once combine.
St. Francis of Assisi is honored as the traditional source for the creche, “the Nativity set,” as we grew up calling them. A mother, a tiny baby, a father who blended in with shepherds, a couple of sheep, a donkey, three kings, three camels: These were the minimal figures in the creche. When I journeyed to Europe, I saw elaborate scenes of Bethlehem with all of the people crammed in for the Roman headcount for taxes. Worshippers of many cultures visit chapels and cathedrals alike to witness doll-like statues telling the story visually.
Last year and this, our daughter delights in playing with the figurines of the creches. Fontanini seems to be her favorite. She outgrew the Fisher-Price version. She likes the tiny plastic pieces on the bookshelf and stares up at the mantel where our “super-breakable” creche sits among the stocking holders.
She has played with the baby Jesus, pretended that Mother Mary is still great-with-child, has asked me to be Joseph, who exclaims that his baby is missing! Together, we call out for the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, Elsa and Anna, LOL dolls, Nonie the Bubble Guppy and Cinderella all to go in search of the Christ Child. We must return the child safely back to Mother Mary.
This is the wonder of the story of Incarnation. Even the youngest child understands what it is to be “in the flesh.” She recognizes the pageant as if the Gospel writers — Luke, especially — intuitively knew that children down through the generations would be reenacting the Good News. God is alive, among us, in the flesh.
God knows that the little children will play and sing and pretend and make up stories because Jesus, too, played as a child in the byways and villages of Egypt where he grew up with his parents. He watched the creatures crawl and walk and fly. He sang songs. He ran and played — body, mind, spirit and heart.
Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas; star and angels gave the sign.
— Christina Rosetti, 1885
Happy Christmas from my home to yours.