The manger scene. Mary and Joseph. The shepherds adoring with a few lambs on the side. A cow to lo, in tune please. A angel strategically perched. And a star. There must be a star, star light, star bright, announcing the cosmic news.
This is the typical manger scene. I grew up with one made of cardboard, two dimensional, but holy in my family. It was my job to put it together each year, placing an electric bulb behind the star to illumine the scene. My first directorial lesson: lighting is critical. With job promotions at Delta, my family progressed to an olive wood set from the monastery….more about the theatrical magic of olive wood later.
In my time (a phrase reserved for seasoned persons, aka old, aka older than God), I have come across all kinds of depictions of the Nativity. I have admired wooden manger scenes, carved by artisans of the Southern Highlands of my ancestors. I have seen plastic, life-size mangers, with the Disney-like figures glowing from an incandescent bulb within. And I’ve even witnessed a “live” manger at a local Methodist church, when it’s not raining. Wise men with umbrellas are disconcerting. Production budget did not include Gore-Tex.
I have always been tempted to cast the production with actors that would bring some gravitas to a scene that often becomes sweetly sentimental. Joe Pesci as the innkeeper was always my ace in the hole to bring some comedy relief. The angels would be the divine trio of Linda, Emmylou, and Dolly. Don’t judge me. Joseph would be Liam Neeson as he blends a masculine persona with softness, plus he has the connection with my Christmas guilty pleasure, Love Actually. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary would be Meryl……because she can do anything. Please. If Meryl can deliver in spades the Anti-Mary mother in Big Little Lies, the Immaculate Mary will be a piece of cake.
But you of sharp mind must be wondering why I have left out the main character: the Baby Jesus. He’s what all the fuss is about, angels on high, attending shepherds, and traversing Wise Men.
A couple of South of Godf articles ago, Put the Camera on the Bishop, made note of the traditional Baby Jesus that was front and center in the Cathedral of St. Philip’s television broadcast of the Christmas Eve service. As noted, the camera loved this Baby Jesus….he never saw a camera or a paint brush he didn’t love. But this Buckhead Baby Jesus had a problem…at least for me.
The plastic figure that was happily laying in the manger at the Cathedral in the toney part of Atlanta known reverently as Buckhead was blond haired, blue-eyed Baby Jesus, not looking like he had ever been in Palestine, much less from there. I swear they would have dressed the boy in Ralph Lauren Polo swaddling clothes if they could have made the deal. I did catch a whiff of the scent of Polo as I moved close to the manger. Him or Joseph…a simple carpenter or Son of God? When we went national with the live broadcast, all bets were off and our people were meeting with their people. I think they call it The Art of the Deal.
And so, the scene of the crime is a Saturday morning when the volunteer women of the Altar Guild of the Cathedral were getting out the Christmas decorations. For those of you not familiar with the Episcopal Church, the Altar Guild is a wonderful group of people who take care of the pragmatic work, readying the worship space for our common prayer. Altar guild members come in all sorts and conditions. Some are as sweet and kind as Mother Theresa, some are as bossy and demanding as Adolph himself. Heil. The Mel Brooks in me has always wanted to write a production number of purple draped Altar Guild members doing the Springtime for Hitler number, while decorating and preparing the high altar. Too much, I know.
I was just wandering through church when I saw him, the Buckhead Baby Jesus, the very star of stage and screen, unceremoniously resting in a cardboard box. I thought of the years of watching the Buckhead Baby Jesus reigning on the WSB telecast, how much I hated what it said about our hermeneutical bias on Jesus as a cute little cooing baby white boy from Piedmont Hospital or the Northside baby factory.
When you see your chance, take it!
I grabbed the Blond Buckhead Baby Jesus and took off down the eastern aisle of the nave, heading to my office, scared to death that someone would see the kidnapping in process. What excuse could I offer if I was caught or seen? What, this plastic Baby Jesus? I’ve never seen him before in my whole life? No excuse seemed to work so I just moved quickly past the Dean’s door to my own office suite.
I couldn’t believe I made it, undetected. It was almost TOO easy, like maybe God wanted…..no, I’ll not press my luck.
I took the Baby Jesus to my bathroom. Unknown to me before this encounter, the Buckhead Baby Jesus was hollow in the back, with a cavity where the plastic was molded. This hole proved convenient as I placed him on the clothes hook on the back of the door. Yeah, I know I’m going to Hell.
Way before Amber Alerts, the Buckhead Baby Jesus was reported missing by said Altar Guild who found him mysteriously gone from the Bekins box. Sunday morning was abuzz with the newflash: The Baby Jesus was missing.
Kidnapped, perhaps? What dark-hearted person could have stooped so low as to abscond…love the word…kidnap the Baby Jesus? The coffee hour was rocking with theories as I tried not to laugh.
The next day, at staff meeting, the Dean reported the news that had already broken: Elvis was Dead…..and the Buckhead Baby Jesus was missing. What were we to do?
I had to wait a few minutes, seventeen to be precise, before I offered up the insight that this might afford us the opportunity to choose a more suitable Baby Jesus that was not blond haired, blue eyed. Using my Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s concept of non-anxious presence, I kept calm and did not press my idea for a Generic Jesus. I did not want my creative insight to give away my sinister plan.
Generic Jesus, you quiz? I had come across an infant Jesus just about the right size that was carved from olive wood. Remember “olive wood”. This Baby Jesus was unpainted, no golden locks, no blue eyes. Just olive wood. He could be white, black, Hispanic, Asian or any ethnicity you needed him to be to relate to him. In my theological gymnastics, this olive wood Baby Jesus was the perfect projective Baby Jesus, allowing you to project whatever your background needed him to be. Truly incarnational….He became like us….or more to point: He became like ME!
Clearly. olive wood Baby Jesus could not be the box office hit of the Buckhead Baby Jesus who looked as if he could grow up to be an adult Ashley Wilkes, a Gone With the Wind, looking fellow, like your neighbor and fellow club member. So the camera would not be so fond of the olive wood non-descript Baby Jesus, but it offered the plus side of not cutting off over half the planet.
And so, after the buzz about the kidnapped Baby Jesus settled down, the olive wood Baby Jesus showed up mysteriously on the Dean’s desk with a typed note. The Dean liked the idea and long story short, the new olive wood figure took its place in the creche that Christmas Eve telecast.
Like I predicted, he did not get the attention of the cameraman and director as his predecessor, but it worked. It just meant more camera time for the sopranos, and who is going to complain?
Inquiring minds want to know what happened to the kidnapped Jesus. He resided in the bathroom of the Canon Pastor’s office for several years until the retirement of my supervisor, Herb Beadle. Somehow, at his retirement party with the Cathedral Canons in attendance, a mysterious package showed up. When Herb opened the package, a plastic blond haired blue eyed plastic Baby Jesus was staring up out of the box. Surely, a wise old priest like Herb, leaving the Cathedral, would find the perfect place for him.
And that’s the last time I saw the Buckhead Baby Jesus.
I am tempted to close with “lesson to be learned”. It’s part of my DNA, built in, like plastic to the Buckhead Baby Jesus. But let me trust you with the story. What do you take away from this story of intrigue, set in the Cathedral? Is it merely amusing to watch the ill-conceived plan of a young, foolish priest to kidnap a plastic figurine to satisfy his need for theological purity? Or is it a heroic tale of a valiant Prince of the Pulpit in a quixotic quest to save Christmas from the commercial Grinch? Or, it is simply Crazy Uncle Dave from the Southside once again proving how crazy he can be? The glory and burden on human interpretation emerges once again.
What is your take on this story? Are you focusing on the teller of the story, his motivations? Are you centering your thoughts on the baby Jesus, how he is presented? Are you identifying with this baby, or is God identifying with you?
At the very center of the first Gospel account of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, there is an encounter of Jesus with Peter. I would note that the Gospel of Mark has no infancy narrative, no Nativity at all. Jesus just shows up with his pressing message of the Kingdom of God inbreaking. No more cooing, cute Baby Jesus, but a person in full, standing up.
Jesus turns to Peter, looks him square in the eyes, and asks the pregnant question: Who do you say that I am? What do you make of this story? And the question remains.