One year I wrote a Christmas shopping list that included the item “plastic turd,” referring to a nasty-looking novelty item that allows you to put what appears to be excrement on a floor or table or just about anywhere else that might get a hysterical reaction out of an unsuspecting person. It’s all supposed to be a great joke and lots of fun, but my plastic turd wasn’t really a gift at all. I meant to use it in protest against my church’s nativity scene that I found offensive. I was going to plant some faux dung right up front in the sanctuary, alongside Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
The nativity that graced our sanctuary was exquisitely beautiful, but that was the problem. A manger scene is not supposed to be pretty. To be an accurate depiction of our Lord’s birth, it needed at least one good turd.
For me, the greatest wonder about Christmas is that God became flesh and was born into incredibly low circumstances. The Holy Spirit miraculously caused a virgin to become pregnant, but the man to whom she was engaged didn’t believe it was because of divine intervention until an angel convinced him to go ahead with the wedding. Absurd political developments then compelled Mary and Joseph to travel by foot and donkey far from their home. Once in Bethlehem, they found no place to stay. (I wonder if they were ostracized because others knew Mary had become pregnant out of wedlock.)
Regardless, that poor woman was forced to give birth in what amounted to a barn (that’s where the turd comes in), and then she had to use a feed trough as a cradle. No matter how you interpret it, the situation shouldn’t create a pretty picture.
That nativity scene at my church, though, was lovely. The backdrop, which should have been a stable or barn or maybe even a cave according to the region and customs of the time, looked like a castle wall, at least in a very sterile, almost Disney World sort of way. Mary and Joseph, who probably looked a lot like weary refuges at that point, appeared positively regal in beautiful robes while looking down on a very white baby Jesus in a completely hygienic manger.
In the biblical version, God didn’t take the regal route, but identified with the lowest of the lowly. He didn’t tip off the rich and beautiful about His entry into this world, but rather sent an awesome angelic chorus out to shepherds who were so looked down upon that their testimony wasn’t admissible in Roman courts. These were the first witnesses to Second Person of the Holy Trinity’s arrival here on planet earth.
That nativity scene, though, had some really handsome shepherds, looking more like types you’d find lounging by a Hollywood pool than ancient livestock caretakers. Oh, and the animals were also in the nativity scene, shiny and unworldly clean like they never would have drawn a tick or fly even on a bad day.
Finally, there were those wise men, who really should be in no Bible-believing person’s nativity scene in the first place. Matthew makes it plain that those guys didn’t show up until a couple of years later. By then Jesus was no longer an infant, and his folks had managed to get out of the barn and into a house. I kind of think somewhere along the line clergy people wanted to incorporate the wise men into the manger scene because they seemed elegant and more in keeping with a wealthy institutional church.
Even here, traditional nativity scenes miss the point with the wise men. More outcasts were showing up, and those three kings were probably not really kings in the first place. In fact, scholars aren’t exactly sure what they were, and the biblical text doesn’t even make it clear there were three of them. One thing is for certain: those wise guys happened to be Gentiles, non-Jews who were not considered God’s chosen people, but they came to worship Jesus anyway.
The wise men brought expensive gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, which of course figured prominently in that abhorrent manger scene back at my church. So little king Jesus finally got some bling, right? Not really. Those gifts basically funded His family’s exile in Egypt. You see, the ruling king got wind of Jesus and went on a killing spree, wiping out all the little male children who might possibly be the Messiah, so Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to cut and run.
The whole Christmas story is wrapped up in Jesus identifying with the poor, the needy, and the outcasts. The only rich and powerful insider in the whole Christmas narrative turns out to be a paranoid despot who orders innocent children to be killed.
In other words, my church’s nativity scene completely misrepresented the birth of our Savior, but I finally decided against buying the plastic turd. I figured too many of my brethren would be offended by my gesture and not understand what I was really trying to communicate; however, I did explain my views to our pastor.
The next year, I noticed the nativity scene had been replaced by one that was rustic and not ostentatious, so I thanked the decorating committee. My wife liked it so much that I bought her one as a present, but refused to purchase those wise men. It occupies a prominent place in our home during the Christmas season and reminds us of what Jesus sacrificed on our behalf, so I’m okay with our nativity scene.
A couple of years later, I went to a party a rich man was having. He is one of those wealthy people who is a blessing to others and quite lavish in his generosity, but he had one of those garish nativity scenes that had been my potential target for a plastic turd. I hadn’t noticed how truly well-crafted the whole thing was until he pointed out that the lavish detailing on the garments simply must have been done by hand. Then he told us how inexpensive it was to buy at Sam’s Club, much cheaper than the simpler version that had replaced it at my church, the same type I had bought for my wife.
I mentioned something to him about modern slave labor, widespread oppression of workers in foreign lands, God’s desire for justice, and other concerns pertinent to the Christmas message, but that’s another story.