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What keeps me Catholic? The Nativity

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January 10, 2012

By Michael Daley

Given the time of year, you may have already put it away. As for me, I have a hard time even getting it out: the Nativity scene.

Truth be told, it scares me.


Ever since I was a young kid, I dreaded going to church during the Advent and Christmas seasons. After Mass, instead of allowing my two older brothers and me to hurry home, Mom had other ideas. In front of the main altar, our parish placed a large Nativity scene. You couldn’t miss it.


Depending on how close it was to Christmas, various persons began to appear: shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph, making their way to Bethlehem.


Desiring that we get more in touch with the season, our mother would tell us to go up to the Nativity scene and say a few prayers. So, each Sunday we went. Slowly. Hoping mom would change her mind. Grudgingly. Offering whimpers of resistance along the way.


Uncomfortably. With hands in pockets and heads down. Embarrassed. Thinking all the time that everyone was looking at us and mocking our childhood piety. Reaching the Nativity scene, my brothers and I would kneel, say a few quick prayers and hurry out of church.


I’m even more convinced today that my early childhood feelings of resistance were well placed.


This past season, I saw the most honest and frightening Nativity yet. Ironically enough it is at a place called Victory Park. I’ve driven by it countless times. In one of its corners, a World War II tank is prominently displayed throughout the year. During the Christmas and Advent season, however, a Nativity scene is placed just feet away from this overpowering military machine. It is, to say the least, a jarring image. I don’t know if it’s there to protect the infant Jesus or run Him over.


With the tank’s turret pointed my way, the song I heard was “Run for Cover” not the classic seasonal carol of “Hark the Herald Angels sing, glory to the newborn king. Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”


With all due respect to St. Francis of Assisi, for too long the church has presented an image of the Nativity that is too tranquil, romantic and picture perfect. If I didn’t know better, looking at some of them, I could convince myself that Jesus is staying at a five star resort instead of lying in a manger in a stable.


The actual historical context of the Nativity is far more dungy and dangerous. Displaced and homeless, Mary and Joseph are exhausted from their travels. In the shadows, behind the adoring shepherds and gift-bearing magi, a duplicitous and bloodthirsty King Herod is bent on retaining his power…up to and including murder.


This is the reality that disturbs me. It is also one that all the holiday catalogues, Christmas cards, and Nativity scenes try to sanitize. So many of us, myself included, would rather hide from this side of the story. Yet, the mystery of the Incarnation states the opposite. Our God, the God of Jesus the Christ, doesn’t cover up the truth, but reveals who we are, and who we’re called to become, through it.


For this reason, our Catholic tradition celebrates that salvation is to be found in the midst of the tension, contradiction, and shadows of life.


As a result I’m now able to say that the Nativity scene, tank and all, is what keeps me Catholic.

Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School.

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