And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. – Exodus 13:19
I started out as a shepherd. Anyone could be a shepherd; it didn’t matter if you were skinny or fat, short or tall, young or old or even in-between. Shepherds were easy because all they did was cover their heads with a piece of scrap material and head-band, put on a large robe, and wrap strips of torn brown cloth around their legs to cover up their jeans. Then they just sat and held a long stick while watching two tired sheep. But shepherds were boring. The only fun they had was to kneel on cue before freely making faces at their friends portraying Mary and Joseph or the winged angel in the white choir robe standing on the bales of hay.
Later I progressed to Wise Men. Wise Men were harder than shepherds were because they had to stand still. But their reward was better. When they walked forward carrying their pretend gifts to the pretend baby, they could open their empty box unseen and pull out a stored lifesaver or jawbreaker, or even a small water gun to squirt the unsuspecting, defenseless Joseph. I spent many a night as a Wise Man.
Eventually I got to be Joseph himself. Joseph was the hardest because he was always looking at the audience and had to keep a straight face – not an easy task with the shepherds and Wise Men with which he had to deal. But Joseph was the most meaningful. Joseph made me feel like I was somebody. It made the whole birth story sort of personal. I liked being Joseph most of all, even if he had to put up with strange visitors and wear a brown, scratchy, noticeably fake beard.
I grew up with church nativity scenes. Even after leaving my home church, I continued to work with them, leaving a trail of nativity scenes through the military and several of the churches with which I’ve been associated. They help me to reclaim the significance of Christmas. The retelling of the ancient story complete with various animals, costumed youth, and familiar carols all combined make the Christmas events alive and memorable to me.
Of course, some events are more memorable than others are. One year our cow birthed an untimely but beautiful calf. It was easier to be a Wise Man then, because of all the excitement. Then another year the cow knocked down the fence and escaped into the dark of night. It took most of the next day to locate, capture and lead our wayward cow home again. Sheep escaped all the time but were easier to apprehend. Although they’re pretty quick on their short little legs, an agile junior high youth could tackle a straying sheep fairly easily. Donkeys were the toughest to deal with. One year we kept the donkey in our back yard in hopes of walking him over when the evening tableau began. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to walk to the tableau, nor could we pull or push him through the chain link fence gate. After an extremely exasperating hour of donkey coaxing, someone came up with the old carrot idea. Once in sight, the donkey followed that carrot everywhere the carrot holder went. Church nativity scenes are great for new experiences.
Now no doubt, nativity scenes are a lot of work to build and produce, the kids act like kids, the animals do strange things, the sequence of events is historically skewed, and the scene frequently becomes an overly sentimental journey. Yet, even with all the accompanying problems, I still appreciate live nativity scenes. They’re a part of my personal history and of my faith history. And, I think it is important to occasionally reach back into the past and reclaim those things that have shaped us.
Moses did this. When he was finally given permission to lead the people out of Egypt, the Pharaoh gave him only one night to gather all the people, their flocks and belongings, and get out. But even during his haste in collecting all that was necessary to move, Moses took time to carry the strangest things – the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19). It seems that in preparing to move towards the Promised Land, Moses took with him a part of his heritage to remind the people of who they were, where they came from, and who their God was.
That’s how I am with the live nativity scene. Problems or not, it’s my “bones of Joseph.”
Prayer: Lead us to be wise enough, Lord, to know which elements of our past to leave in the past, and which elements of our past to bring forward into our present to remind us of who we are as your people. Amen.