f you happened to be in worship on the first Sunday of Advent, you’ll know that I get a bit geared up talking about why it is so very important that the church attend to the great themes of Advent before it even considers a move into Christmas. I don’t mean to make anyone feel guilty for wanting to set up their Christmas tree early or for taking part in the various “Christmas” events and social obligations that appear in our schedules over these early December weeks, but I would encourage you to think about adding an Advent wreath to your home practice, and maybe using a crèche in a way that emphasizes the themes of expectation and preparation; if you’re interested, you can find a bit of a guide to these practices elsewhere on this site.
And I do have a memory of how such an approach almost got me into a bit of trouble. It all took place close some twenty years ago, when I was working as the chaplain at Marymound, a residential treatment centre for adolescent girls, run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Good Shepherd. I was quite keen on using the whole Advent and Christmas cycle as an opportunity to really teach about one of our faith’s foundational narratives, and decided that the crèche was a good way to do that. On the first Sunday of Advent, I put the stable up in the chapel, with only the animals and the empty manger – the feed trough – inside. The shepherds and sheep were placed in another area of the chapel, which served as “the fields.” On that first Sunday, Mary and Joseph were nowhere in sight.
On the second Sunday, I placed the Mary and Joseph figures at the back of the chapel, and explained that they were now making their way to Bethlehem, but that they wouldn’t arrive for some time yet. My plan was to move them closer on the third Sunday, have them in the stable on the fourth, and only add the figure of the baby on Christmas Eve, when we’d also bring the shepherds into the scene. While many of the girls were typically indifferent to just about anything I might offer in chapel, quite a few really got into this story-telling approach, which cheered my pastoral heart.
Meanwhile, in the set-up of the various seasonal decorations throughout the centre, some well-meaning soul set up a little crèche in the reception area by the social work office. Unlike my chapel version, this one was quite filled with figures: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and magi, sheep and camels, and the baby Jesus. A day or two after that display went up, a rather agitated residential supervisor arrived in our daily morning meeting and reported that “one of those damned kids has stolen the baby from the manger… can you believe it?” She went on at some length about this blatant act of disrespect for the nuns, and how little “these kids” really appreciate what is done for them. While I didn’t say anything at that point, I did have my suspicions as to what might have happened.
Later that same day one of the girls called me to her room, where, with a mixture of mild guilt and utter delight, she held out the figure of the baby. “They put him in his manger too early,” she said. “He’s not supposed to be born until Christmas Eve.” I suggested that while she was liturgically and theologically correct, not everyone was convinced that theology could be used to justify theft, and that maybe I could step in and mediate the issue. Without pause, she handed the little figure to me, and said, “They’ll put him back, won’t they?” I said that they most probably would, but that in the chapel at least we’d hold tough until the 24th.
I headed down to the office of the Sister Superior, a woman named Sister Monica who was a wonderfully creative soul with just enough mischief in her heart to make me quite sure that this little incident would be not only accepted, but actually embraced. And sure enough, it was. In fact, that girl became quite fast friends with Sister Monica, who was more than a little appreciative of this little piece of subterfuge.
I’m a bit sorry to say that the figure of the baby was returned to the manger, and that the shepherds and magi spent the better part of three weeks gazing down at him. But in the chapel, we did hold firm. And it was in that chapel that the girl and the aging nun began to seal their friendship.