We were new in town. We were tired and alone. And we needed some holiday cheer. So we visited a living nativity staged by a local church. Despite the winter chill in the air, they greeted us warmly: steaming Styrofoam cups filled with hot chocolate; oven-baked cookies with red and green sprinkles softening on top; sincere, toothy grins and firm handshakes through Thinsulate gloves; real, honest-to-God livestock that snorted mist into the starlit night.
Right in the middle of town, along a main thoroughfare, amidst everlasting, frantic holiday traffic and indiscriminate weather systems, this event had become a yearly tradition. For the friendly congregants we met that evening, the week-long living nativity had become a labor of love, a free hug bestowed upon the community, and a chance to slow down and contemplate the real meaning of Christmas – God with us.
We felt something that night. My wife and I smiled at each other as we shuffled to our car, both realizing perhaps simultaneously that we had found a church to call home.
The following year, we gave back what had been given to us the previous Christmas.
I played the part of the innkeeper, the one who had no room in his Motel 6 for Mary and Joseph. My son, snuggled up in snow pants and draped in a tunic, played the innkeeper’s son, a non-Biblical character we made up just so he could play a part and spread the joy of the season with his dear old dad. Visitors chuckled as he directed them, in his tiny yet boisterous six-year-old way, to check the stables, under the star. Maybe they’d find the baby Jesus there . . .
Then the church decided to relocate. The powers-that-be accepted a juicy offer for the land (where a Home Depot sprang up almost immediately after our departure), so we moved to the northern edge of town, occupied a prime piece of real estate amidst the sprawl of suburbia where rich young couples were building big homes and popping out babies that needed Jesus, and built a mega-church. We tried to stage the living nativity the first year on Mayhew, but the weather turned bad and attendance was spotty at best. So the following year, they presented a dinner-theater style production, complete with a four-course meal and minstrels singing carols.
The spirit had died.
Before the move, the nativity pumped the blood of life through veins that had grown cold and weary. The stress of the season succumbed to the joyous anticipation of a new year as young and old, rich and poor, donned costumes and braved the elements to share moments of delight with strangers and friends. We did it because we loved people above all else and wanted to thank them for pausing and singing hosanna with our motley, off-key and shivering choir of humans draped with plastic wings. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously back then.
But somewhere in the transition, we got way too serious. Just prior to the move our pastor died suddenly of a brain tumor. A gentle and friendly soul, he led our flock with a rare meekness, and kept his office door open. His death cast a pall over the church that eventually became a righteous urgency. Misguided vigor crept upon the members and the business of evangelism and outreach took over, for we were in new territory that stood ripe for picking. Simple expressions of compassion and love were replaced with committees and their organized programs and puffed up displays. The smiles weren’t genuine anymore. Instead they turned saccharine and omnipresent. Sickeningly sweet and bitter to me, and I hated them. We were a show, a summer blockbuster short on talent but long on special effects and marketing hoopla. People came, the pews filled up, but the heart had vanished.
In those years lay my own nativity of sorts. The circumstances of my surroundings, the trappings of organized religion, birthed in me a mind weary of The Show. I played the part and almost let the smugness of it all consume me. Fortunately, I have removed the blinders and can see now that what we all need, perhaps what we all cherish more than anything, is an unencumbered hug . . .
Free Hugs Campaign. Read about it, and go hug someone . . .