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My seven year old and I decorated our home with nativity scenes from all over the world. As a child I loved to carefully set up the creche in my mother’s recently emptied hutch. I had just a way to place the angels and shepherds. I often attached Jesus’ widespread arms to Mary for it made sense to me that Mary would be holding her newborn babe. My Lydia is as attentive as I was, but her preoccupations are different.
To this day, I always place each nativity piece turned outward, last-supper-like, so that the onlooker can see each figure. Mary is always near Jesus and over her shoulder the others look. Lydia’s scene is different. Mary and Joseph are tightly huddled around Jesus. The other pieces encircle the new parents and babe, often their backs turned to the viewer. I have restrained myself this Advent; I haven’t rearranged Lydia’s presentation. They were hers to set up and she visits them daily.
I asked her about one scene, “You can barely see Jesus, he’s tucked inside so.” She responded with clarity and exasperation, “You want him out of the rain, don’t you?!”
Those who heard the angels’ choir and followed a star were fully immersed in the scene before them. They beheld a perfectly normal infant who promised to change everything. He was born, as Mary tells us in her revolutionary song, to turn the world upside down. The child in the manger will show his strength by scattering the bluffing braggarts. He will knock tyrants off their high horses and pull victims out of the mud. He will invite the starving poor to a banquet and leave the callous rich out in the cold (Luke 1, Eugene Peterson’s translation). The shepherds and visitors from the east came to see the child of Mary’s song. They did not come so they could be remembered years later as small wooden and clay figures. They did not come to establish a cozy quaint holiday. They came to behold. Lydia seems to know this. Her figures all look at Jesus, gathered around, urgently waiting for what would happen next.
This Advent season, I am looking in with Lydia, and with the shepherds, angels, and wise men. My neck is stretched, my feet are arched, so I too might catch a glimpse of the child who will change the world. I am watching intently even though outside the manger the world spins out of control: hate has become ordinary public discourse, threats are effective communication. I keep my eyes steady in hope that once again the world will be turned upside down, that once again the bluffing braggarts will be scattered, the tyrants knocked down from seats of power, and the callous rich left out in the cold.
Perhaps I’m looking in because I can’t bear to look out. Or maybe I’m looking in because I hope. Some might call my hope naive, but this is the same hope that has sustained all the saints I revere--Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez. They persevered through the Wilderness, their eyes set on the Promised Land, leading America into God’s imagination. I choose to hope like they did. And I join an earnest seven year old who knows--intuitively and intimately--that something powerful happened in a manger 2,000 years ago, something worthy of hope.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.