We released the ceramic animals from their blocks of styrofoam and arranged them under a rustic wooden stable. She had helped me with this coveted chore–unboxing the nativity scene–every December that she remembers. She was aiding me over a decade ago, when her sweet, pudgy fingers gave me no assurance that a sheep wouldn’t be dropped or a shepherd’s staff broken. Small, unsteady hands handling them through the years resulted in today’s precariously super-glued donkey legs and chipped Wise Men urns.
This nativity scene has been a cherished part of every one of her childhood Christmases (even those she can’t remember); she’s adored the characters, handled the animals, and cried over pieces when her eagerness led to their brokenness. So her words would have caught me off guard, except, I had already been thinking the same thing.
“Ya know, it’s all kinda… weird. I mean it’s not right.”
This was the first time we had peeled off the styrofoam lid from the painted, ceramic Mary and Joseph since our family had become newbie homesteaders.
This was the first time she had pulled out the crude stable from its box since she had herself finished building the walls of her own stable.
This was the first time she released the cow from this taped-up foam fort since she herself had brought home her own cow.
And things weren’t quite right. We looked at our nativity scene with new eyes. With a homesteader’s eyes. With a farmer’s eyes. We realized our little nativity scene is a romanticized, sugar-coated depiction of a humble, dirty, smelly story.
Anyone who has spent even a little bit of time in a barn knows the hay that fills the manager is the same hay the birds perch in and, yes, poop in.
Oh, and anyone who knows a manager knows it’s not worthy of a newborn baby’s bed. It’s the food trough. Filled with, well, poopie hay.
Anyone who knows a farm, knows a nativity scene doesn’t include all of the common farm animals, like hens, who love to walk around in garbage (ours adore our compost pile), then roost up on a food trough and, well, poop.
Then there are the farm animals that are included in most nativity scenes, you know, the sweet, groomed sheep, donkey, and cows. We don’t have a lot of time to groom our farm animals, and Scout, our cow, loves to be dirty. I’m guessing bovines in ancient Bethlehem wouldn’t look as good as Scout, not alone as pristine as the ones in our nativity scene.
Our ceramic shepherd adds to the deception. He looks like he checked into the Bethlehem Holiday Inn to spruce himself up in preparation for meeting the child king. He definitely doesn’t look like he just came in from the fields. Around our homestead, we wear a lot of muddy boots, and we don’t come in from the pasture looking too spiffy or smelling so great.
Our nativity’s Mary is wearing white. And it’s, well, white. Nothing is actually white on our farm. And she and Joseph look so calm. (And did I mention clean?) Never mind that they just traveled 5 days, expecting a baby any minute, and knowing that their trip would lead to higher taxes next year. (Caesar would never call for registration unless he had plans to raise taxes.) On that long trip, Mary probably thought long and hard about how Joseph’s meager carpenter salary would bring home less money next year. Yep, more mouths to feed and less money in their pockets. And never mind that when they arrived in their own home town, the town where Joseph grew up, none of their family offered them a mattress to sleep on, because Mary has disgraced the family name with her seeming promiscuity, getting pregnant before saying “I do.”
So Mary’s dress dragged in the dust, hanging from the back of the diminutive donkey, for an uncomfortable 5-day trip. All the while, her head filled with worries over rising taxes, judging family members, and the looming labor. Not one of Joseph’s sisters offered to do Mary’s laundry, none of his aunts loaned Mary a change of clothes, and yet my nativity Mary’s white is bleached alabaster and her smile is a scrubbed-clean peaceful.
Yep, manger scenes are glorified pictures of what was, in reality, a humble, dirty, smelly story. Truly, nothing is more humbling than thoughts of an immense, inconceivable God, who knew no barriers of time or space, yet voluntarily contained Himself in a frail human body and left the perfectness of heaven to live in the smelliness of a sinful, fallen world, where He was greeted, at birth, by an adversary eager to devour Him. And he did it all so He could face a horrible death and take the punishment for our sins.
No it’s not a pretty story. It’s smelly and messy.
So beside our pristinely clean nativity cow, we added a unique character. One that isn’t included in any nativity scene, but I personally think it should be. One that reminds us not of Luke, but of Revelation. (Revelation 12:3-4 to be exact.)
Yes, I think in every nativity scene, the cow should be muddy, Mary should be wearing a dirty dress and a worrisome look, baby Jesus’s manger should look more like an unclean food trough, and an ugly red dragon should be perched at the feet of the baby. Maybe those few realistic additions would remind us that it was an ugly, messy story–this story of our salvation from our sins.
Mind you, I’m just a newbie homesteader, and I’m no expert in animal husbandry, not alone red dragon proficiency. (I can tell you that the dragon represented Satan, who was desiring to devour Christ at his birth.) But I do know how this story will end. We actually have known that from the beginning. (Genesis 3:15)
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:11