Doing Christmas Theology at the Met.

How much do you like Christmas “crib” scenes, those cutesy 3-d  representations of Christmas card scenes, with an angelic baby Jesus in a stable, surrounded by a beaming Mary and Joseph and a few token shepherds, angels, and possibly completely three anachronistic “Kings” from the East?

You’ve guessed that I am deeply ambivalent.  They are all an important part of the Christmas message, but too often, like the soppy, sentimental and inappropriate carols all around us, they can too easily demean the real story of Christmas to nothing more than a nice children’s story, which we unpack somewhere around early December and put away again after New Year.

Fortunately,  not all exercises in Christmas cribs, nor all Carol Services, get it wrong. 

Done well, they can be profoundly moving and powerful aids to seasonal reflection.  This is even  more true when we have an astute observer like Jamie Mason to guide our thoughts. At NCR On-line, she has a powerful reflection on her annual visit to the Neapolitan Crèche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition consists of more than one 100 figures, ranging from six to twenty inches in height. Created in Naples in the 18th century, the scene mingles the Holy Family, the shepherds and Magi, a bevy of stunning angels, and, perhaps most striking, a crowd of colorful townspeople and peasants.

Regally dressed kings, some from exotic places in Africa and Asia, enter the scene atop horses, camels, or elephants. They have come from all corners of the earth to seek out the newborn King. An exhausted shepherd lies asleep in the field while a hard-working blacksmith looks on disdainfully. A travelling band of lute players and a monkey with cymbals entertain by the roadside, while a destitute, blind man sings along wildly. A fisherman casts a net in the hope of catching dinner, while a herdsman coaxes a lost sheep off a craggy cliff. Contemplatives study quietly by candlelight in caves, while a lone pilgrim walks the hillside, all of his worldly possessions strapped to his back.

This is a more powerful, more relevant depiction of the Nativity as incarnation  in the real world.  As Mason sees it, even the visitors to the gallery, with their widely varied responses, extend the point of the scene, just as the townspeople depicted vary widely in their own response. This is not just Christmas decoration, but real theological insight, she says.

Though the crèche is a moving, delightful, and exquisite product of expert craftsmanship, the theological insight that it communicates is far more priceless. Each gesturing figure, illuminated candle, basket of fruit, and flowing fountain, seems to brim forth with the message that God is always fully alive in our midst.

Even those who hold an ardent commitment to “keep Christ in Christmas,” often just focus on the “silent night” “away in a manager” in the “little town of Bethlehem.” But the theological reality of Christmas, the glorious mystery of the Incarnation, is so much more profound and awe-inspiring than even the dramatic story of Jesus’ birth

Read the full reflection at  “During Advent, an Epiphany at the Met” 

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