I love nativity scenes. I love the art of them, that they are all so unique. Whether made from a mold or hand carved, these small sculptures become interactive artwork when we set them out, recreating the scene as we like. This is liturgical art at its best: artwork which tells a story, loud and clear. We always have Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child. Often we have a donkey, there to tell us what sort of conditions Jesus was born under. Almost always we have wise men, bowing and offering their gifts. Sometimes there is a shepherd, a sheep, and an angel, to tell the story of the shepherds in the fields who were visited by angels heralding the birth of our Lord. Together, these pieces come together to tell a familiar Christmas story, and when most of us look at them we know exactly what they mean.
My family didn’t always have a nativity. In fact, we didn’t get one until I was probably a pre-teen, and as a child I thought there was a very serious reason for that. For whatever reason, I thought that protestant Christians weren’t allowed to have them. I thought that images of Jesus, of any kind, were strictly prohibited. I thought that crucifixes were attached to Catholic identities; that, living in the joy of the resurrection, only empty crosses were permitted for protestant Christians. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I had a notion that this was a hard-and-fast rule across most denominations, especially my own.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I was taken to a church member’s house for a Christmas party and found an ornate nativity set displayed prominently on their mantle! I was shocked. There was Jesus. Right there, that was a baby statue of Jesus. I looked around in horror. No one else reacted. Surely, they all saw it too? Were we just going to pretend we didn’t notice? I don’t remember who I was with, which adult, but I vividly remember our conversation sounding something like this:
“Look! Over there! Do you see that?”
“Yes! Isn’t it pretty?”
“That’s Jesus! Why do they have that?”
“…What do you mean?”
“Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”
“No. It isn’t a Catholic thing. It’s a nativity.”
Now, I’ve since learned that crucifixes aren’t just for Catholics, and neither is artwork containing images of a Christ figure. While many protestant Christians do oppose rendering any representations of Christ’s likeness, some freely do it. Still others are only comfortable with illustrations or small pieces for personal devotion. But the one thing that no one ever seems to question is Jesus’s likeness in nativities. What I was trying and failing to ask with my little kid words so long ago is why?
Is it because of tradition? Is it because our families have always had nativities so we set them out every year without a moment’s thought? Is it because they are simply a staple in our Christmas decorations? Is it because the Jesus we find in our nativities is meek and mild, small and unassuming unlike the Jesus of the rest of the New Testament? Do we allow the image of him in our homes because he is a baby, seemingly not yet the God-Man Jesus we worship?
I hope not. I hope the reason no one really bats an eye at nativities is because they tell a readable story that we need to hear. I like to think that that we diligently set out our Mary’s, Joseph’s, and Jesus’ each year because the reminder of that story, the comfort and joy it brings, means something to us. We value it. This is what liturgical art should do. It tells the stories of the Bible. It communicates the mysteries and comforts of scripture. It provides a centerpiece around which the gospel can be shared and taught in churches and homes.
This is an important function that liturgical art performs, and nativities do it so perfectly. In fact, they are so popular, such a cherished part of many Christmas celebrations, that you can even find them in the homes of non-believers. This is the gospel, being brought into the home by the arms of the very person who needs to hear it.
My fear is that we will come to the conclusion that representations of Jesus are indeed idolatrous, because if that’s so then I think we have to chuck our nativities in the trash and that would be such a shame. It would be a shame to lose the one piece of liturgical art which is loved by Catholics, Protestants, and non-believers. It would be a shame to deprive people of the comfort and joy our nativities remind us we have. And it would be a shame to reject such a valuable tool for telling the story of how our Salvation came to us.
Cover art: Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst, oil on canvas, 1622,Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne