Going to Plantboy's family was like finding sisters that I never knew I had. I was warmly welcomed by everyone and kept most of the names straight. Mostly, I found a warm and kind welcome from his mother, whom I had been most afraid of letting down. Despite not knowing me, at all, and finding a veritable stranger in her house for Christmas, she had put gifts under the tree for me. One of these tender presents was a little ceramic nativity set. The figures in are fat and cute and childlike. It was a gift I have long cherished, and my first Christmas decoration that was all my own.
Even when the kids were little I always put out this set. Perhaps because the characters look not entirely unlike "Little People" characters, my littlies always had a hard time keeping their little mitts off the set. This was disastrous for the sweet angel in the set, but the rest have survived their sometimes rough treatment.
A thing I noticed, however, is that regardless of how I arranged the set, inevitably, my children would always rearrange it. And when they did, each figurine was in a circle surrounding the happy little Christ-child, as close as they can be. The little manger is crowded with smiling well wishers, all wanting to be right there.
This odd fact has always brought a bit of a smile to my face as I rearrange the figures in a more artistic and traditional way. The wisemen grouped and spread out as if traveling; the shepherds together with the animals respectively grouped near them; Mary and Joseph keeping watch, Mary slightly closer to her babe. the child and manger, of course, is front and center, slightly forward with other figures turned toward but at a respectful distance and making a nice tableaux for onlookers.
Last week when I taught my little primary class full of happy six year olds, I brought the nativity. Each piece was wrapped in a little present that the kids would open. When each piece was pulled from the bag we sang a song or read a scripture and talked about the nativity. as each new piece was added, the nativity changed and took shape as kids arranged and rearranged the figures. I deliberately put the sleeping babe in a very nondescript bag, banking on my kidlets picking Him last. I was not disappointed. When Jesus finally arrived on the scene, there was a quick scramble and bustle of activity from my class, as they sought to rearrange the set to best suit this new arrival.
As they backed away, there it was again. That circling of the proverbial wagons around the Babe of Bethlehem. For protection. For worship. For eternal friendship and family. For each child of God to have an equal share in gazing on His face. Again, I laughed inwardly at the predictability of children.
Two nights later I did the same activity with my own family, taking a little more time with each piece and testifying frequently as I went. We discussed the realities of having a baby in a stable, Mary not being married, and the great distance the wise kings of the east must have traveled. It was a lovely night. My youngest, eight, was the last to choose his piece for the nativity. I had been arranging as we went, saving room for the arrival of the younger stranger so that it was artistic and lovely to look on when we finished.
After he chose his figurine, he turned his back to me and bent over the nativity as I prepared to introduce our last song--Away in a Manger. He came back to join his brothers, smiling. As we sang, I glanced at the nativity to find the childlike familiarity I had seen so many times. Each figurine arranged in a perfect circle around the manger, each vying for equal time in gazing on the face of God. Mary's serene little features pondered in her heart, and this time I did too.
I was no longer laughing at the consistency and silliness of little children, instead I marveled mightily at their innocent insight. Of course this is the way the creche is meant to be arranged.
From that evening until Christmas, whenever I happened to glance at the earnest circle of admirers--the humble and poor shepherds, the great and wealthy kings, the mother who loved Him most, the dad who sacrificed his reputation to guide this Boy through childhood and the animals of creation--I felt to rejoice in the simple lesson my sons have been trying to teach me all these years.
The creche isn't some interesting artifact to decorate my home. It isn't merely culturally significant. It isn't even really art. It is a representation of something deeper and far more profound. It is the very thing I should center my life on. If we could all stand as equals, shoulder to shoulder, gazing on the face or our Savior, what might we accomplish?
I often speak of "finding my center." This Christmas I think I did.