Dear Episcopal Church Family in Southern Virginia,
The crèche is surely one of the most enduring traditions of the Christmas season. During the holidays many churches manage to display one somewhere on their property. Crèches really vary in size – from a small display set on a table in the back of the church or parish hall, to a life-size, elaborately lighted one in the church yard. And there are a few industrious congregations that even perform an outdoor living crèche, replete with live animals and costumed congregants.
Likewise, crèches are popular in homes. I grew up watching my mother set one up each year with delicate precision on the dining room sideboard. The figurines were made of china. I can still remember the “negative feedback” my baby brother and I received one Christmas when we “borrowed” Joseph to lead our army of plastic toy soldiers into battle.
Lizzie and I have a crèche that was given to us years ago as a wedding present. Rather than made of china, ours is made from olive wood from the Holy Land. It appears to be indestructible – which is a good thing after raising three children. Each Christmas Lizzie still sets it up on our dining room sideboard – just as my mother did – just as her mother did.
Regardless of size or location, all crèches have a couple of common attributes. The first and most obvious are the characters – Mary, Joseph, barn animals, wise men, sometimes shepherds, maybe an angel or two, and, of course always, the baby Jesus.
A second and less obvious attribute is that crèches are opened depictions. The barn scene is always displayed outwardly toward the observer – not unlike a stage play is displayed outwardly toward an audience. Each crèche means to tell a story – the story of Jesus birth. Yet, this telling is about more than the mere conveyance of historical fact. The crèche is an attempt to dramatize something holy, to elicit in an observer a first-hand experience of the abiding peace, tranquility and joy that so characterize the essence of the miracle of the Incarnation. Also, the crèche dramatizes the startling news that God has opened his home to the whole world. In the birth event God literally invites the whole world in to his inner sanctuary to meet his newborn son.