Christmas Scenery and the Theology of Manure

It seems that a lot of things get me unnecessarily irritated at Christmas.

I get irritated with pre-Labor Day Christmas music on the radio. Yes, yes, I know you all love it. So do I—after Thanksgiving! Let me add, however, that Christmas songs by WHAM! or Miley Cyrus irritate me at any time and should be banned for all eternity.

Of course crowds and traffic irritate me.  It’s a strange sensation, during our annual bacchanalia of Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards All, to be filled with the desire to run someone over with my shopping cart.

I’m not even a fan of the Griswold-like light displays, especially when viewing them keeps someone from getting into their driveway.

Seriously, I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch. I genuinely love Christmas. I just like to keep it in perspective, as in waiting until the day after Thanksgiving. Creating scarcity drives the value up.

But more than all of the headaches and hardships, one question about Christmas has really troubled me the last few years:  Why don’t nativity sets include manure?

The scenes placed on our mantles, coffee tables and church grounds are pristine and sanitized. Mary, a Middle Eastern Jewish girl, is milky-white and–of course–immaculate, even after just giving live birth. On a hay bale. In a barn. Without pain meds. I have to believe that she looked a lot less pristine in the 1st Century version.

Old Joseph (and he usually looks old) stands dutifully in the back, having just delivered his child in spite of the fact that he would have zero knowledge of live birth. Perhaps a midwife is a little too realistic for our tastes.

And then we have perfectly swaddled 8-pound, 6-ounce baby Jesus in His little golden fleece diapers. And, of course, no crying He makes as he rests, perfected and squeaky-clean in an animal feed trough. (And that’s what it was–but we use “manger” because it sounds a lot more holy).

And of course, we must have barnyard animals in our scene. Clean, gazing lovingly, and without a se dropping anywhere to be found near their feed trough. Since it was empty enough to hold a baby, the animals must have been eating that day, right?

Once again, I love traditional Nativity scenes, as they bring back wonderful childhood memories. It was often my job at our house to set up the characters in the hand-made stable my father built. I even like the lawn light-up Jesus Mary and Joseph sets that adorned our neighbors’ lawns.

But the older I get, the less comfort these bring. I simply have to wonder if these depictions are anywhere close to the real scene of the Holy Family. Does it not make sense that if Jesus was born in a stable and placed in an animal feed trough, there was some manure close by?

Deb-Richardson Moore, pastor of Triune Mercy Center in Greenville, SC, reminded me last Sunday of a story I forgot years ago, from a book called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. In this version of the original Gospels, a group of neighborhood street children named the Herdmans invade the local church Christmas play.

These un-kept children, whose single mother works two jobs, bully other kids out of the lead parts and take over, with the big sister Imogene Herdman playing the role of Mary. They steal all the refreshments, smoke cigars in the restrooms before rehearsal, and decide that they need to rewrite the story.

The Herdmans had never heard the stories of Luke and Matthew that we take for granted. When they discover the manure of the world into which Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is born, they find the story unacceptable. Their revised version of the Nativity includes beating the imaginary innkeeper into giving Mary a room, telling the filthy shepherds to get away, and using the gold from the Wise Men to pay off someone to kill Herod.

You see, they recognize that the Gospel is one where Jesus enters the world surrounded by manure. They are offended and scandalized!

Perhaps our Christmas pageant needs to be interrupted with the offensive news of the Gospel that our God was born next to a pile of potential fertilizer. We created the sanitized, G-rated, cozy version. Jesus offends our reality by coming into the world surrounded by manure.

He did not come to give us a comfortable, pristine, white version of Christmas, one untouched by the reality of the manure of real life. He came to empower us to begin cleaning up the mess, to work for His Kingdom Come.

It’s kind of like our homes. We often ignore the mess in the house until we recognize that someone is coming who might see it. We would never accept an infant coming to our house and sleeping next to a pile of excrement. We would immediately begin to clean up the mess and create a better place for a baby to reside on its first night in our presence.

The Christ child comes as our guest, and we should be so mortified by the mess surrounding him that we are compelled to join in helping Him to clean it up. We cannot truly see Jesus unless our hearts are moved to shovel away the injustice, poverty, neglect and struggle of our global neighborhood—one pile at a time.

The offensive nature of the God-child, born in filth that would normally require a DSS investigation, is that it will not allow us to ignore suffering and pain, even when we don’t understand it. We are called by this baby to change the story to one of peace, justice and mercy. In other words, we are to work for the Kingdom of God here on earth, in the middle of the mess into which God was also born.

I am reminded that, at the end of the book, the Herdmans are moved to tears when they realize that this Jesus is indeed born for them, in all of their wild, mean and broken ways. The rest of the church is then reminded that Christmas pageants are about the birth of hope into a hopelessly filthy world.

Maybe that is the value of our picture-perfect Nativity scenes. Maybe they can remind us that the beauty of perfect love comes to us and lives with us even in the middle of our piles of manure. WE are the mess, and God’s ultimate grace is offered to us at Christmas in spite of ourselves. As the Dave Matthews Band tells us in Christmas Song:

So the story goes, so I’m told

The people he knew were Less than golden hearted

Gamblers and robbers

Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers

Like you and me…

Searching for love love love

Love love love

Love love is all around

The beauty and power of Jesus, with us and for us, is found in following the true love of the Living Christ, in spite of the messes that we see around us. As we look at the scenes of the Holy Family in our homes and churches this year, may we see that these perfect images exist because the ultimate grace of Christ has overcome the dirt and filth that surrounds us. He does so with a compassion and love that we cannot help but share–and if we’re not sharing it, then we have failed to truly understand the grace of the manger. (Or feed trough, if you will).

Merry Christmas to you all. And may your vision of the stable remind you that the beauty of the season is found Jesus the Christ, loving us so much that he came into a world full of manure—and empowering us to love others as He loved us.

(In addition to Dave Matthews, I highly recommend you give a listen to The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne).

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