A motley nativity decorates our mantelpiece, the figures acquired over fifty years. Some I first saw at my grandmother’s house. The olive wood wise men set out from the left edge with their camels. The shepherds came from the right. Grandma Galli had background artwork, long since lost as she moved to assisted living, then bounced to my parents’ house and finally ended her life in a nursing home.
“We will all wear out like clothing.”
Widowed in her 50s, my grandmother set out to see the world. She was a Laubach Literacy volunteer in Japan, did mission work in India, and visited the Holy Land. She collected more than one nativity set on her travels. When my oldest was a toddler, my mother sent us a soft set, wire figures with fabric faces and actual clothes, the animals not as bendable as my second child’s fondness for them required. The “doh-doh” was his special friend, carried around the house and hidden and rediscovered until finally one leg fell limply from his soft, grey body.
The olive wood figures came to me after my parents died. We set them up each year, Grandma Galli-style: wise men on the left, shepherds on the right, an empty manger at the middle waiting for the baby. We added candles and gazed at the scene by the soft light.
A few years ago I felt wistful for the by now hard-used textile set, and I scrounged through the box looking for pieces I could add. Two shepherd boys; why, they were only a little out of scale! And I could add the lambs, because their dear little legs remained intact.
Somewhere among the Christmas things were other little wooden camels, smaller than the handsome set belonging to my grandmother. If I put them far to the left, maybe they would look like the camel train stretching into the distance. Yes?
And that Italian angel, the only piece of a set an elderly cousin meant to start for us, she could stand by the manger, surely, to worship the baby Jesus.
A dear, faraway friend has what she calls a grotto in her home. It’s full of other people’s leftovers, found in thrift stores and at yard sales. Once while visiting, I looked up and gasped with recognition. A flamboyantly posed and painted Wise Man gazed at me, just like the one in a set my mother had discarded long ago. He came home in my suitcase and joined the eclectic Nativity. It doesn’t matter that his edges are worn and his paint a little faded.
We will all wear out like clothing, but God’s years will never end.
Fashions change and cultures evolve. Presents everyone wants one year are old-fashioned and eccentric the next, just like a cloak we roll up and put away, or donate to Salvation Army. Material things pass out of fashion.
But eternal things remain the same. God was and is and will be, forever and ever. God – Creator and Christ and Holy Spirit – existed in the beginning, before anything we can see or touch or imagine. God was and is and will be with us, in the midst of our lives just as Jesus was in the world. God was and is and will be found in the old story of angels and a guiding star. God was and is and will be found as a baby in the arms of his mother.
So if that wooden baby Jesus hits the hearth again and the break is beyond the power of Super Glue, I won’t feel I have to replace the whole set. Olive wood Mary can beam just as easily at the leftover textile baby. God was and is and will be, forever and ever. God’s years will never end.