By DELORES SCHWEITZER, Commentary | Published December 22, 2005
At the age of 17, I was not thrilled with the gift. My mother had been going on for over a month that my sister and I were getting expensive Christmas presents, and in my delusional mind that meant a car, so imagine my disappointment when I woke on Christmas morning to a large cardboard box in the living room instead of a cute Suzuki Samurai in the driveway. Rather than freedom, fulfillment and joy personified in a means to get away, I received a box with 17 hand-painted ceramic figures and a bunch of pieces of wood that fit together to become a fence.
The Nativity set, in its original form, only made two holiday appearances—on that first Christmas in 1987 and the following one in 1988. The next year brought an unwelcome guest in the form of Hurricane Hugo in September, and thanks to a tornado tearing a hole in the roof of our house and widely dispersing many of the contents, the set took on a life of its own. The cow was sucked into the sofa bed and lost his horns. Melchior dropped the frankincense and the bottle broke. Balthazar lost his chest of gold, as well as his body (we found his head downstairs). The angel of the Lord broke a wing. And one of the sheep—the one who was lying down and I never figured would go anywhere—was missing. Somehow, I found this last one incredibly amusing.
In the wake of the hurricane, we made lists for the insurance company of all the personal items that had been lost or destroyed, and it was obvious some things would never be replaced. Books from childhood, records, toys, my favorite blanket—they were all gone, and in the days before e-bay, there was really nothing to be done about it. We had to accept it and move on.
But the Nativity set was harder to accept. It wasn’t an encyclopedia set, where it could be used even if a few volumes were missing. One wise man couldn’t visit Jesus with his three camels. The shepherds couldn’t come to Bethlehem without an angel to point the way. More than anything, I really wanted that Nativity set to be whole.
My mother talked to the woman who had made the originals, and she agreed to work on the replacements when she had the time. Three years later, there was a revival of the Nativity show on the top of our piano, with a few new cast members. Balthazar, Melchior and the angel looked fresh and clean, and the cow lowed with pride in his fine set of horns. The only piece missing was the sheep, which had gone out of production. All in all, it was satisfying to see the group back together, and indeed it marked a sense of normalcy that was returning to our family after three years of rebuilding and adjusting to things that would never be the same.
As the years passed, I became lukewarm in my faith, but no matter where I was living, the Nativity show played every year in December. In 1997, I moved to my townhouse in Marietta, and there was no open space to create the scene. I tried putting them all in one place on a bookshelf, but with all the characters and animals, that stable was really crowded. So I spread them out. After all, the wise men did not visit at the same time as the shepherds. There was no need for them to be geographically close to each other. The wise men gathered on the shelf to the left and the shepherds were to the right, thus giving Mary the opportunity to give birth in peace.
Shortly thereafter, I started attending church again, and as I learned more about my faith, I discovered the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in which I was encouraged to put myself in the stories I found in the Bible—to accept the role of one of the characters and have a look around, smell the smells, walk the dusty roads, and experience the wonder.
That year, I thought a little bit more about each of the players as I placed them on the shelves. Separation was no longer because of space restrictions and convenience, but reflection and intention. In each year that has followed, my reflection and intention have increased as the meaning of Advent sinks in more. The Latin term “advenio” means a number of things: to come to, to arrive, to happen, to come near, and to break out.
As I position each person or animal, I ask questions of them:
“Where are you going?”
“Have you arrived yet?”
“What is happening to you?”
“How are you breaking out of your past life into something new?”
You see, I want them to be in the right place for the season, but I also respect that their answers change over the years, just as surely as my answers change as I live and grow. The “right place” should never be exactly where I was last year, just for the sake of consistency.
And so, I ask the questions, the players take their marks, and the story begins. This year, the wise men started on Stage 1, facing forward, staring into the beyond, and pondering what their dreams meant. Mary and Joseph began on Stage 2 with negotiations with a merchant for a meek little donkey. On Stage 3, some shepherds gathered to talk about the high cost of renting a cottage, and one sheep was standing a little bit apart from them and their herd, sad because she had lost her favorite companion. Her heart had only grown fonder in his absence. And in the balcony much like those in Shakespearean theatres, the angel of the Lord was getting instructions from a baby.
In Week 2, I saw a change. Two of the wise men have looked at each other and discovered a common truth, and they are discussing what it means. Mary and Joseph are resting on a dusty road, en route to their destination. The shepherds have been joined by another man who is telling them how the town is full of unwelcome strangers asking for handouts, and a lot of the townspeople want them out. The sad sheep is gazing off in the distance, wondering if she should go looking for her old friend. And the baby and angel are discussing preparations.
What will come in the final weeks of Advent and the 12 days of Christmas? To be honest, I don’t know. I could play it predictable and stick to the basics, but it is much more fun embracing the journey to Bethlehem and back with them, asking along the way what they are learning, how they are experiencing Christ in the coming and going, and what they will be taking forth with them in the new year.
I have often struggled to explain my sentimental attachment to this Nativity set. Are they dolls? No, because dolls are for kids to dress up and speak through. Are they statues? No, because they are not fixed in a moment of time. Are they icons? No, because while Jesus, Mary and Joseph might be subjects of icons, shepherds and sheep are not.
And yet, as surely as the answers to these questions are “No,” they are also “Yes.” As I create a story for each of the characters, I become like a child and speak through them of my own questions and revelations. As they hold a pose for their weekly scene and invite me into contemplation, they are very much like statues. And as these men, women and animals struggle and move forward, they pursue wholeness and holiness, and I can see the halos of gold forming behind their heads, just as surely as I see it in an icon.
This year, I finally found the right term. They are action figures. They challenge me to a life of courage and heroism, and they show me, through their stories and questions and progress, the wonder of this season. And just as I ask questions of them, they ask of me: “Who are you today?” Sometimes, I am a wise man, and other times a donkey, and still others the shepherd, complaining about the sheep who act more like willful cats than domesticated livestock. And every once in a while, I cast myself as the lost sheep who is not really lost, but off doing her own thing, not really interested in what is going on back at the herd, and content to be who she is, where she is.
Even though the play changes from year to year, I know three things are certain. There is joy in this journey. There is growth and divine revelation, both alone and within community. And there is a part for everyone to play.
Delores Schweitzer is a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Marietta and works part-time for the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Ministry.