One of my last newspaper assignments was a live nativity scene on a church lawn off a busy Nashville street in the cold winter solstice dark. Talk to the Mary and Joseph and write it up.
It didn’t turn out that way. When I got to the place, there they were, sitting deep in the makeshift shed, two local citizens enacting Mary and Joseph with (plastic) baby Jesus, robed in dignified silence. I couldn’t barge in on that.
So I chatted with a couple of shepherds on the periphery. They were affable and relaxed, taking an affectionate view of their tasks, explaining how the shed got built and how many night shifts there’d be that week.
Thanking them, I pushed my luck and greeted the Wise Men a few feet away. But they didn’t want to break character, which was to look mysterious and devout and say nothing and let their boxes of gold, frankincense and myrrh speak for themselves. I totally understood. (As a kid my only Christmas pageant glory was to get a role in the Magi section. Choosing me, the Sunday school teacher was confident I wouldn’t blow my lines, because there weren’t any.)
The real news that night at the church was the startling fact that such nativity scenes, after 2,000 years, still happen. After 2,000 years, believers still go to this trouble on a frigid evening. It still stops traffic. Motorists honked as they passed (automotive cheers, it seemed to me, not jeers.)
The players in a nativity, any nativity, gather into themselves a special quality of peace and quiet. The calmness invites other people into it. Christmas has a way of reminding society of the paradox and potential of human life. We’re built to cherish family memories and yet imagine larger beloved communities. ’Tis the season of complicated emotions of love and loss, a hot splicing of momentous Bible passages, haunted childhood images, and yearnings of joy to the world. The jarring jumble of personal memories includes thunderous snippets from the Book of Isaiah, the jazz trio soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the scent of candles at crowded Christmas Eve worship, the movie “The Lion in Winter” (a tumultuous royal family Christmas in 1183), seasonal tangerines and brazil nuts on the table, a Handel oratorio on TV, the parents’ gentle banter as we tinseled the tree, my teenage immersion in the Beatles’ Abbey Road (an early gift that year) – all under the grinding constellations above and the churches’ insistent message that we are all little arks of divine purpose in this mortal world.
The nativity scene I peeked in on featured some basic human elements – good-humored shepherds, pensive Magi, brave young family positioned at ground zero for world-bending news of a birth. Strangely what I recall is a glow of light – not a light bulb or string of lights but a glow nevertheless. I don’t remember inquiring about the electrical circuitry on hand, though the pragmatic shepherds could have told me. I’m content to remember a soft glow and leave it at that, with words from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” trailing along even now: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light/the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Columnist Ray Waddle, a writer and editor, is a former Tennessean staffer.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Soft glow and quiet of a nativity scene still stops us in our tracks