We visited some friends a few weeks ago who were in the midst of putting up Christmas decorations. I saw and instantly loved that they had a nativity set that was a toy, where their young kids could, and did, really play with it all.
When I saw the same toy set at the store this week, I got so excited and pulled it to show Curtis. I tried to paint my vision for Riley playing with it and there being no risk of breaking the pieces, but I was not far into talking before I realized he wasn’t digging it.
You don’t like it?
Jesus is blonde.
Yeah, but it’s not much hair and the figures kind of all look the same.
Not the wise men, two of them are obviously non white. The rest of the set is white.
Ok, true. We could marker over Jesus’ hair?
The reason we currently don’t own a nativity is that I want a non-white set. (I also want a less cherubic set, like where Mary isn’t standing all glowy like. I want sweaty, exhausted, sitting down because my perineum hurts Mary. This is not a priority for nativity set makers.) That’s been hard enough to find, let alone this new goal I have of making sure it can be played with by the small, destructive forces-of-nature called kids.
There has been a fair amount of buzz about race and Christmas figures, both historical and fictional this year. And I have read some responses from bloggers with multi racial families that are excellent, almost to the point where I’m not sure why I’m also posting.
But I guess it’s to try and think through this: many of those responses discuss how non-white kids shouldn’t have to see only white figures as the iconic representation of Christmas; there should be images of people of various ethnicities in our celebration. I agree, and these posts articulate important points much better than I could.
But there is another aspect to the conversation; it’s about more than just making sure brown skinned children have Christmas images that look like them.
Christmas is about connecting ourselves to a real momma who went through real labor to birth a real, wet, slimy human baby. It’s about creating room in our lives for that baby, and the man he grew to be, to change us. And in a small, but significant way, if I insist that baby change his skin to look more like mine, something is backwards. And that toy baby Jesus looked more like Riley than the real Jesus. To some degree (and I’m not sure how much), how we represent the physical Jesus in our imagery impacts how we perceive Jesus in our lives and the world.
We all face the temptation to worship a god made in our own image. That god has standards that align with our own values. That god administers grace and justice in just the ways we would to just the people we would. It’s more tame (than a scandalous premarital pregnancy), more civilized (than an unmedicated, cut the cord with a homemade knife birth), more prudent (than putting your fate into the hands of two poor teenage parents).
Our real God? Have you ever noticed that He can sometimes make us look bad? What with the wild, radical, on the hunt for all people in all places at all times thing He’s got going?
Certainly the skin tone of a nativity set is not predictive of the degree to which we will embrace the real Christ child.
Still, I stand only to gain when I remember that God does not look like me. Not in his physical features, and certainly not in character. God’s holy, infinite, perfection and my sin-scarred, finite, mess could not be further apart.
That is, until that real, crying, goop covered, olive skinned baby showed up.