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December 18, 2016

Several years ago, just before Christmas, I made an unholy pilgrimage to a cathedral of capitalism, a shopping mall. I accompanied my wife, Clare, and our daughter, Betsy.  Both ladies know that such a trip is among my least favorite activities.  My attendance on this occasion was not optional. It was required.  My responsibility was to be sure the cash registers jingled their accompaniment to the piped-in Christmas carols.  I was excused to my bench and my book with the assurance that I would be summoned at the proper time.

The benches in shopping malls were made for people like me.  Given a place to sit, a book, and a cup of coffee, I can become oblivious to any crowd. With my nose in a paperback, I am able to enter a zone of solitude.

An hour and a half later, I realized I was in trouble.  I had only one book, and this trip was becoming a two-book pilgrimage. When I finished my book, I abandoned my perch and took a walk. My browsing carried me past clothing stores and specialty shops and ended, as you might expect, in a bookstore.

The item that caught my eye was not a book at all. At the front of the store, displayed on a large table, was a Nativity scene.  The familiar depiction of the birth of Jesus was presented in large wooden figures that were handcrafted in Italy.  For a person who loves wood and appreciates the art of woodcarving as I do, the manger scene was fascinating.  I would have held one of the figures in my hands to examine it more closely had it not been for the sign:


On the way home from the mall, Betsy asked, “Dad, did you enjoy the day?”

I told her about the manger scene in the bookstore.

“Too bad about that sign,” she replied.  “Manger scenes were meant to be touched.”

In 1223, Saint Francis placed a crèche, a miniature Nativity scene, at a church in Grecchio, Italy.  For many Christians, that was the beginning of a cherished Christmas tradition.

In our home, we display several Nativity scenes during the season of Advent.  They help us keep our focus on the reason for our Christmas observance.

Over the years, we have accumulated an assortment of manger scenes that are intended for children to enjoy.  One is made from two-by-fours, cut and sanded to resemble the Holy Family.  In another, the figures are stuffed dolls sewn together from printed fabric and filled with batting. I still remember Clare sewing those figures years ago. Recently, a granddaughter played with the figures and arranged them in our living room. We have left them exactly as she placed them.

When they were younger, our children molded a set from clay.  My mother made and hand painted a ceramic scene as a Christmas gift when we were first married.  All are placed on low tables to invite touching.

When our children were small, a sturdy, store-bought Nativity occupied our coffee table during Advent. I often came home after a day of pastoral work to find Fisher-Price toy figures – firefighters, police officers, doctors, and construction workers – placed next to shepherds as if they, too, had heard the angels’ message and paused from their work to worship. I have seen Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leah, and other Star Wars action figures standing next to the magi as if they, too, had followed the new star from some far away galaxy through a time warp all the way to Bethlehem.

On the first Sunday of Advent, several years ago, a couple in our church lit the first candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of hope.  Their son, a West Point graduate, was an officer in the United States Army.  That Christmas he had already served multiple tours of duty in Iraq.

Another Christmas season, a family in the church I pastored prepared to see their two oldest sons deployed, one to Iraq in December, and another to Afghanistan in January.

Again, this Christmas season, the continuing war in Afghanistan and the seemingly endless conflict in Syria have renewed a vision indelibly etched in my memory.

I recall descending our stairs one December morning years ago to find G. I. Joe action figures in the manger scene on the coffee table. The miniature Joe and several of his well-armed buddies circled the perimeter of the crèche.  The tiny soldiers were facing outward, as if standing guard.

With delighted curiosity I asked our sons “Tell me the story about this.”

“King Herod wants to kill Baby Jesus,” came the explanation.

“G. I. Joe and his guys are protecting him.”

Through the day, the tiny military force protected the Holy Family. That night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I sat before the Nativity and pondered.  Maybe Christians do need to protect Baby Jesus, not from Herod and his Roman soldiers, but from an internal, invisible enemy, from anything that would eliminate the Christ child from our lives.  Then, it occurred to me.  Our role in Christmas is not just to protect Baby Jesus in his vulnerability. Christians have another, more important role.

In an act of private unilateral disarmament, I carefully took the weapons from G. I. Joe and his comrades.  I reshaped their pliable bodies, turning them, from an outward attack mode to a position facing the manger. The tiny soldiers knelt beside shepherds and wise men in humble adoration of the Prince of Peace.

I am grateful for our men and women in uniform. I hope that in this season they will find a moment to worship. I pray that they will find that inner peace for which we all yearn.

Clare joins me in the prayer and hope that you will have a blessed Christmas.

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