In many churches, one of the traditions of the Christmas season is to get out the nativity scene that spends most of the year in a shed or garage and set it up. They are often cumbersome and heavy and sometimes create technical difficulties. This year ours was put up on a cold and windy day as snow began to fall. About ten years ago the plastic figures were beginning to show their age so we purchased a “gently used” set in the antiques mall in the old armory in Newport, Rhode Island. I’m sure they did not qualify as antiques but they looked a lot better than our old set. They rode on the ferry to Long Island, peering out the back window at the cars following. I have to check the figures every day and make sure no one is leaning precariously or topped over. They do seem to be better anchored this year.
In the December 20th issue of Christian Century magazine Pastor Peter Marty tells a similar story about the creche that was set up every year in the front yard of the Kansas City church he used to serve. Theirs was life-sized, so even more difficult to set up. In spite of the fact that it was a very classy set, with fiberglass figures and real cloth robes, there was always some sort of problem. As with our set, sometimes the electrical connection for the light shining on the manger malfunctioned. One year a pickup truck veered off the road and took out two of the Magi. The next morning, they cleaned up fiberglass shards that were buried inside the crushed velvet robes and flattened crowns of the crash victims. There was no frankincense or myrrh that Epiphany.
In spite of such misadventures, Marty says the biggest problem with the creche was the disappearance of baby Jesus. We don’t have that problem because the figure of Mary is holding Jesus, they are molded together for life. Of course, people then ask, “where is the baby?” because they don’t really look at Mary, but that is another issue. In the eight years that Marty served the congregation, the baby Jesus was stolen five times. Thieves were never interested in the manger itself, or the hay, or the other figures. All they wanted was Jesus. They never left a ransom note and so Marty always hoped that the child was being held by someone who needed his presence more than their aging creche.
Understandably, Marty developed a habit of checking on the presence of Jesus every morning until the creche was put away, and in December 1992 as he checked to see that Jesus was still snuggled in the hay, he noticed a small gift beside him. The handwritten label taped to the wrapping paper read, “Happy Brithday Jesus.” Yes, “birthday” was misspelled. He hesitated. Was this a booby trap? Perhaps a makeshift bomb? A candid-camera prank? Or a real gift? He deliberated whether or not removing the gift would be appropriate – it almost felt like stealing a gift intended for Jesus – but he brought it into the church offices. He and an office manager faced a moral quandary. Should they open it or not? Finally, their curiosity won. Beneath the red wrapping they found an old Shake ‘n Bake pork seasoning box. Inside the box were 33 cents and a piece of notebook paper which had this message:
“Dear Jesus, Happy Brithday. Here’s some small change for you to feed someone who is hungry. I give myself to be kind to others as you were kind to other people on earth. Love, Maria”
Marty knew exactly who Maria was. She lived on their campus in a house that the church owned and operated for people living with chronic mental illness. She was a tiny person, perhaps five feet two inches, and plagued by voices in her head who constantly told her what to do and think and feel. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and her condition reminded Marty of the demon that Jesus called “Legion.”
When she was born she had been given the name Maria and she lived up to the generous love demonstrated by Mary, the mother of Jesus. Maria had a big heart that she shared with those whom she trusted. Marty reflects that “she seemed to know that love was the only thing she had to give away, and she knew that that love came from the Lord.”
Marty made a generous contribution to the food pantry in Maria’s name. For twenty- five years he has kept that box with the note and the change inside. It sits in his desk drawer, a sacred relic that he is unwilling to part with. It was intended for Jesus but it is a beautiful and constant reminder to Marty that love is the best thing we have to give away, and the only love we have to give is that which we first receive from God.
Over the past twenty years I have been privileged to witness the members of Saint John eagerly take tags for people who would otherwise not receive gifts and go out and purchase as many items on the tag as they can. They are beautifully wrapped and returned to church. We don’t know the recipients and they don’t know us, but that doesn’t matter. In a special way it almost gives more joy to give those anonymous gifts than it does to offer presents to our loved ones. I have also had the privilege of delivering anonymous gifts, often generous amounts of cash, to people who were perceived to be in need by their brothers and sisters in Christ. Although this is the season when we traditionally give gifts, that generosity extends year-round.
At Christmas we give to those we love – and those we don’t even know – in the spirit of Saint Nicholas who secretly gave those in need, or inspired by the Magi who presented Jesus with gifts fit for a king. The thing that is important is not the amount we spend, or even the “wow” factor we sometimes aim for, but the fact that we are modeling what Jesus taught us. God has given us the gift of unconditional love with the express intent that we share it with others, even those we may never know. Amen.