Light-up Plastic Baby Jesus

I’m not going to lie; I’m a snob when it comes to aesthetics. That’s mostly because I think my sense of what’s beautiful, what’s nice, pleasing to the eyes is the right one. I feel I have a clear and superior sense of what looks and feels good in this world.

Or I thought I did, anyway.

I did not grow up in one of those houses filled with things from previous generations, things that had ancient beauty and meaning with longevity built into the dovetailing. We did not have Grandmother’s silver or Great Grandfather’s rifles. That’s because there was no grandmother or great grandfather to speak of. None that had ever lived long enough for me to meet them or for them to amass any kind of collection of things valuable enough to write into a will.

I have no idea where my sense of what is and isn’t beautiful came from, save wandering through this world and encountering art and landscapes and other homes and people with stuff I thought was cool.

In the weeks leading up to the Advent season I heard a rumor that a plastic nativity scene would be going up in front of the church. I will confess that I have always had mixed feelings about Ye Olden Nativity Scene. We had one as a kid, of course—no good Catholic family would dare go without, and it was a source of both wonder and confusion. I didn’t really understand why all the animals were milling around; a cow and a camel. How? I didn’t really get the whole ‘in a stable’ thing, especially when Joseph and Mary always looked great in their clean and fancy clothes. And the baby Jesus looked nothing like a newborn. He always had a lot of hair and appeared to be laughing at something.

I learned early on in my time as a congregational minister that my opinion in regards to church decor doesn’t count that much. I may not like the curtains or the carpeting, but it’s not my church to go all Fixer Upper on; it’s everybody’s church. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut. Still, when I heard this rumor my heart sank a little … plastic? Can’t we have something with wood and hay, something organic? Made by a craftsperson? You can’t throw a stone anywhere in Vermont without hitting someone doing something clever and crafty. Plastic? Really?

T’was no rumor, indeed, this one was truth. One evening a couple of weeks ago I came home after being away for a few days and saw in front of the church a large plastic nativity scene, all lit up. And because I live across the street from the church and several of my windows give me 24/7 visual access to my place of work, I got to see the giant plastic light up nativity scene every single time I looked out the window.

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My first thought: Oh my … sigh.

My second, third and fourth thoughts: What would Jesus think if he happened to stroll up Route 133 in Pawlet? Would he laugh? Cry? Wrinkle his nose in confusion? Would he show up in church on Sunday and tell us we got the skin color all wrong?

But then something funny began to happen. There was something very sweet about looking out into the dark December nights and seeing that thing all lit up over there at the front door of our church. I could feel myself softening with each passing day. My heart didn’t expand rapidly, like the Grinch’s growing three sizes in a few seconds, but it did begin, slowly, to fill with wonder.

And then that Sunday, the clincher: Platt, who brought the whole dang shebang down from his attic and set it up, electric cords, lights on a timer, star hanging over the baby Jesus and all, stood up in church and announced that he was donating the scene to the church. And everyone clapped.

When I first came to the church a little over three years ago Platt didn’t come to church at all. He was on the board, but he didn’t come to church, which I thought was weird, so I kept encouraging him to join us on Sunday. His wife, Mabel, got sick and eventually died and then Platt started coming to church. I could see that it was a nice outing for him, this town elder who just celebrated his 90th birthday. He would arrive each week in a nicely pressed shirt and sit in his spot way over on the left. Eventually he started to come a little early so he could put out the flag and get the place ready. And then he started handing out bulletins and greeting everyone, too.

When Platt stood up in church and announced that he would be donating the nativity scene to the church I almost cried and not because it meant a hundred years of plastic Christmas decorations either. Because it was a big and important deal: Platt’s participation, his gestures of kindness, his showing up each week and finding ways to be useful. Platt and all the others who have shown up and integrated themselves into our little scene, our little ragtag group of searchers who come together each week to mingle our voices and hearts in prayer and song, hoping beyond hope that it makes a difference in this beleaguered world.

The other day, after church someone asked me what my message would be on Christmas Eve. I wanted to say something worn out and tired along the lines of … is there anything new under the sun when it comes to the Christmas message? … weary travelers, no room at the inn, donkeys and sheep, a really bright star … yadda yadda yadda.

Four Christmases into this and I’m already yadda yadda-ing it.

But then I realized how dumb that was. And it slowly dawned on me, what was happening right here this Christmas season, right outside my door and inside my heart.

It goes something like this:

Prepare in your hearts room for the light-up plastic baby Jesus, because it’s coming, whether you want it to or not. It’s coming by way of a kindhearted old man who says I love you all the time. It’s coming even if your heart has been hardened by too many dentist office waiting room minutes filled leafing through Architectural Digest; too much attention paid to Elle Decor and all that other this is very fancy and important and you want your life to look just like this bullshit.

That little plastic baby Jesus is going to set itself down right in your line of vision and stay lit up until you can’t stop looking, until you start to realize just how great it is and how dumb you were to think you somehow had it right all along. As soon as you start thinking that way—that you are right and everyone else is wrong—I guarantee that your plastic baby Jesus will arrive to soften your edges and melt your ego. The question for you this Christmas season is… will you make room? Will you be ready when the blessing comes?

Amen.