Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Baffled in Bethlehem

It’s time to break out the bath salts and the old robes—we’re gearing up for the annual Christmas nativity, when little ones stand around in varying degrees of confusion while parents and grandparents coo and ooh.

This holiday tradition remains one of the highlights of my dramatic life. As the Roman centurion, I announced the census that sends Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem—albeit with a moment of panic. The one-piece cardboard armor I wore prevented me from bending at the waist to get up onto the stage; thankfully, a helping hand from Mrs. Brown saved the day.

We’ve all got our nativity disasters to share, no doubt. My favorite story is of the little guy demoted from a plum role to innkeeper—as punishment for messing about during rehearsals. He seemed to take the degraded assignment well, behaving admirably during the rest of the practice runs; maybe he had learned his lesson.

Then came the actual performance, and Joseph and Mary knocked at the innkeeper’s door. He opened wide and with a big smirk declared, “Sure, we’ve got plenty of room. Do come in!”

He’s not the only one to rewrite the script, of course. Who can forget the (“first”) lobster that joins the other animals in the stable at the end of Love Actually? (Sidenote: one of the stars of that film, Martin Freeman, headlines the cute Nativity!, which sees a school production taking a few liberties with the original).

The typical school or church nativity may be a little less subversive when handling the story-line, but the productions are no less fraught with miscues. Joseph stands awkwardly by Mary because, after all, what five-year-old wants to be married? Meanwhile, Mary ignores the glares of the angels or sheep who wanted her part. One of the shepherds is picking his nose, a bored cow is looking for his parents in the audience, and the wise men are elbowing each other for first place in line.

On top of all that, most of the cast is really pretty clueless about all that is going on. The old saying, “Hasn’t seen the ball since kick-off,” comes to mind. They just know that it’s important, somehow, judging by the way the adults act, and that it makes a lot of people happy.

When you contemplate it, this makes your average kids nativity a pretty accurate reflection of the first Christmas. Well, maybe except for the bath salts and old robes. How so?

The incarnation may be one of the most beautifully scripted episodes in history. Yet, in typical human fashion, most of the players didn’t really have much idea about what was going on. Even those with the inside scoop—Joseph and Mary—had their doubts. He didn’t want to be married, for a time, and needed a divine nudge to accept the part. She endured name-calling. The wise men and the shepherds breezed in and out without seeming to grasp how big a thing they’d been let in on.

The main thing, though, was that, baffled as they may have been, everyone showed up. Only later did they have a clearer picture of what was going on, thanks to the clarity of hindsight.

But isn’t that just so like God? He is at work, and we have been given a part. We don’t have to understand it all yet, just accept the invitation. Things will fall into place in due course. For now, we get to be part of something that’s more important than we really know, the source of true happiness.

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