When the Nativity Sets Go Back in the Box

Like many of us, this past week found our family packing up our Christmas decorations. I always look forward to unpacking our decorations and recalling the stories behind them – special ornaments given to us by friends, crafts created as a child, family heirlooms passed down over the years. Especially I enjoy unpacking our nativity set and waiting, together with all of the figurines, for the placement of baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Day. The unpacking day is a day of great anticipation.

The packing day, on the other hand? It just doesn’t quite hold the same anticipation. Beyond just the work of packing and cleaning, it is marked by a bit of sadness, as all of these treasures go back in the box for another year.

Christmas is over.

Many congregations also find themselves in the throes of packing. The celebration of the Day of Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord Sunday signals that it’s time to put away the church’s decorations as well. Advent candles and wreaths are moved to the storage closet. Christmon ornaments get carefully wrapped and put in their boxes. The nativity set used in the children’s pageant and in worship returns to the basement until the next Christmas season – because this Christmas season is over.

Every year it is the same routine, and with it the same tinge of sadness. But this year for me was marked less by sadness – and more by conviction – a conviction that began long before that first Christmas box was opened.

Back in October, in a conversation with our Future Travelers cohort, our facilitator Alan Hirsch made a statement that kept swirling in my heart in the weeks leading up to and throughout Advent. The closer we got to Christmas, the faster it swirled – faster still in the days following Christmas.

Hirsch said, “Evangelicals emphasize the cross and the resurrection. But what we often miss is the incarnation.”

In my Doctor of Ministry residency this week, we’ve been visiting various congregations’ worship spaces in order to help us consider several questions: How does our worship space tell God’s Story? What is the Story it tells – in its layout, design, stained glass and other images? What parts of the Story are missing in the space and thus need to be told in other ways?

When we visited one particular congregation, I was struck by how the sanctuary conveyed the transcendence and beauty of God, with its domed ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows lining the length of the walls. In the far left corner of the sanctuary stood a nativity set. As the worship leader explained, the nativity set was to be removed yesterday, following worship celebrating the Baptism of the Lord.

In the Sundays that follow, other stories of Jesus’ life would become the focus in worship. Many of these stories were captured in the stained-glass windows and elsewhere in the sanctuary. The big cross hanging front and center told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The picture of the empty tomb in the window closest to the cross recalled the story of his resurrection.

But what about the story of the incarnation – when Jesus took on flesh in the form of a baby in a manger? Nowhere was it to be found except in the nativity set.

And when the nativity set went back in the box, so did the incarnation.

This congregation is not unique. Think about the story your congregation’s worship space tells. Where in its images and décor do you see the incarnation? When do you hear it celebrated in worship? If you are involved in leading worship, when and how do you tell and retell the story of Jesus’ incarnation throughout the year? If I’m honest, I admit the temptation is to relegate it just to those four Sundays of Advent (hopefully, all four!) We’ll then give the incarnation its due by letting the story take center stage on Christmas Eve and Nativity of the Lord/Christmas Day before moving on to the other stories after Epiphany.

There’s good reason why the Twelve Days of Christmas end with Epiphany. On Christmas Day, we celebrate the coming of light in the birth of Jesus. On Epiphany, with the visit of the Magi, we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus’ light to all the world. It’s as if Epiphany adds a big exclamation point to the good news of Christmas.

Or rather, not an exclamation point, but a colon.

Because the great celebration of Christmas doesn’t end on Epiphany: The party is actually just getting started.

While the baby Jesus and the Magi figures may go back in the box, the incarnation was never meant to be boxed up. It was meant to be on “unboxed” display throughout the year….through figures like you and me.

Jesus, the one who said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), also said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   The way, not just our congregations, but all of the world is to see and experience the Word become flesh is in the way you and I live the Word in our flesh.

How are you living out the incarnation in ways that call you out of the box – the box of comfort, the box of familiarity, the box of security, the box of control? Where do you find yourself still living “boxed in”? How might Jesus be calling you to shine his light into the darkest boxes of this world? The box of despair, loneliness, addiction, disease, poverty, hunger, and more? What is one step you can take this week to live more out of the box – and to help someone else do the same?

As we put away our nativity sets this year, may we take care not sadly to put away the incarnation with them. Rather, may we with joyful conviction “unbox” the incarnation every day – until Light comes again.

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