O Holy Troupe

The nativity is more than decoration. It’s a living, breathing story, which is up to us to tell.

Our favorite chore as children was to lug musty boxes up the stairs so we could unpack and decorate the living room for Christmas. There would be crumbling ornaments from school days past, elves with caps and long winding toes, and the cardboard village to arrange on a large round mirror sprayed with aerosol-can snow.

But the greatest of these was our nativity scene. Our plaster set was hand-painted by Dad at an indeterminate age and, by all accounts, the genuine article to us children. It featured the usual suspects—the goat, pairs of sheep and camels, shepherds, a single angel, the chronologically misplaced trio of wise men, and a young family at center stage.

Mom set the actors in place, but as we grew, it became important for us to capture the players in a way that seemed more authentic. This meant pulling the cast of characters out of the dark-stained wood barn, setting the hay bed front and center, taking care that every visitor had a good view. The important thing was to make Jesus seen.

Our crèche was not a closed box; in fact, I’ve never seen one with all four walls. The scene remains open, each participant circling around the One who set aside His glory to sleep in an animal trough. When God dressed Himself in flesh and stepped down into our world, He drew a diverse crowd—including laborers from the nearby hills, the wealthy from a far-off land, and two young Israelites contending with a new marriage and this mysterious baby.

There’s just no way of knowing how many have come around to see Him in these two thousand-and-some years, but we Christians keep setting the scene, arranging our inner lives to make the Savior central, putting Him on display before our world. Usually it doesn’t seem like enough. We try ever so hard to be filled with joy and unashamed of the gospel, but for all our effectiveness, sometimes, we might just as well be a chipped plaster sheep crowded out of the barn.

The impact we make for Christ has less to do with our methods and manipulations than with the radiant life that emerges from inside of us. Notice how Jesus prayed, even as the time of His arrest, illegal trial, and atoning death drew near. He asked for His followers to be one body, joined together in Him. Or as He put it, “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You” (John 17:21)—a tall order with a great promise: When believers are unified in Christ, it will be such a powerful testimony that the world will believe Jesus has been sent by God.

It certainly worked that way in Christ’s first coming as He drew together people of every kind in those early days, from earthy sheepherders and those far-afield magi to tireless saints like Simeon and Anna. They had little in common, but in worshipping the newborn King, they united with those who had come before them and all who would follow. This communion of saints would include a ragtag band of disciples, the first century’s disparate blend of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles, and members of “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

Each Christmas we focus on that single scene of the nativity, arranging the pieces just so, meditating on how it must have been. Yet what’s surprising is how quickly the Gospels hurry past this encounter. Luke described it this way when speaking of the shepherds, who were stunned at the arrival of a great company of angels: “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told to them about this child.” (2:16-17 NIV).

More than anything, this is a description of movement. The heavens exploded in song, and the shepherds reacted by racing off to “see this thing that has happened” (v. 15). Then, after worshipping the forever King, they ran on to “spread the word” (v. 17).

It makes me wonder if we haven’t spent too many hours lingering in the stable, taking in the scene at the expense of going, telling, loving, and praying for that perfect unity Jesus so hoped for us to enjoy. As we reacquaint ourselves with sparkling lights and those nostalgic decorations, let’s remember that life itself is a season—meant for drawing nearer to Christ and to each other.

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