What started as a one-time occurrence, prompted by a toddler, has become a holiday tradition at our house. When our children were toddlers, I “inherited” my very first ceramic Nativity set complete with stable, manger, wise men, shepherds and animals. Because our children were so little, I put the nativity set up high enough where (I thought) they couldn’t reach it. About halfway through Advent that year, I found the baby Jesus and one of the wise men missing from the set, having been replaced by Malibu Barbie and one single, solitary GI Joe action figure. In one of their toddler minds, I think they probably believed that as long as the same number of figurines were returned to the Nativity set as what I’d initially started with, I’d probably never notice. I initially noticed because, in an obviously unsuccessful attempt to get all of Malibu Barbie to fit in baby Jesus’ tiny little manger bed, one of them had popped her head off. I was now the proud owner of a Nativity set with Barbie’s head as the baby Jesus, and the rest of her body lying on the floor of the stable, being watched over by Melchior, Caspar and GI Joe. It strikes me that GI Joe could have done a better job protecting the baby Jesus if he’d really wanted to.
What started as an isolated incident evolved into a tradition. Early on, our children would have a contest to see who could get to the baby Jesus first and hide him. As years passed, we progressed from GI Joe and Malibu Barbie as members of the Nativity to lego guys, Polly Pockets, Star Wars guys, Rescue Heroes, half the cast of Dragon Tales, Disney figurines, and even a tiny cardboard cutout of Justin Bieber. The three wise men were none too happy to have to share the spotlight with the Biebs. I used to spend days hunting through their toy boxes, their closets, and under their beds, searching for the baby Jesus. Inevitably, we had a few years where I couldn’t find the baby Jesus and Christmas Eve would roll around and my husband would have to threaten our children that Santa wasn’t coming unless the baby Jesus showed up first. As it should be, right?
This perhaps twisted tradition has always spoken to me, however. Each and every year, the baby Jesus would show up. As our children evolved, so did the cast of characters inhabiting the inside of our Nativity set. It used to torture me a little that the baby Jesus wasn’t on display at our house for all to see, inside the Nativity scene, for the entirety of Advent. I was bothered by things not being “picture perfect” inside the stable. I wanted everything….everyone inside the stable to be “just so.” Instead, a host of Pokemon, the Ninja Turtles, Cinderella Barbie, and plastic army guys each had their turn inside the stable. One year, when I asked my youngest son if he’d seen the baby Jesus, he replied “he’s out in the living room, and the (lego) guys are learning about God from Mary.” It was only then that I realized that I was trying so hard to paint the perfect picture, that I had never stopped to realize that our children had inadvertently built me the perfect picture of what belonging in the family of God really looked like. My children understood something about the kingdom of God that I didn’t; the figures don’t have to match, they don’t have to fit in the stable, and they might even be unlikely characters – but they all actually belonged in the stable; they all belonged in the family of God.
“Unto us a child is born…unto us a son is given..” – Isaiah 9:6
Unto all of us. Even Barbie. Even GI Joe. Even Pikachu.