A Snake in the Manger

By Steve Beard

One of the memorable scenes in the quirky British comedy Love Actually is where Daisy (Lulu Popplewell) proudly tells her mother Karen (Emma Thompson) about her role in the Christmas play at school.

Daisy: I’m the lobster.

Karen: The lobster?

Daisy: Yeah.

Karen: In the nativity play?

Daisy: Yeah, “first” lobster.

Karen: There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?

Daisy: Duh!

The nativity play ends up being the climactic conclusion to the film. Not only is the lobster on stage, but she is joined by an octopus, a few penguins, Spiderman, and an assortment of other peculiar creatures.

That scene came to mind several years ago while I was visiting the set of The Nativity Story — a charming film about the birth of Christ. As we were checking out the cave-like location in Matera, Italy, for the manger scene, a five-foot black snake slithered through as though he owned the place.

As alarming as it seemed, it should not have been terribly shocking. Matera is an ancient city known for its neighborhoods that are literally carved out of rock. It is an ideal home for slinky, slithering, and creepy animals of all varieties — perhaps a little like Bethlehem.

Like a lobster (or Spiderman), a snake is an unlikely character for a nativity scene. Nevertheless, its appearance seemed strangely fitting to the incarnational reality of Christmas. After all, at the precipice of hope and redemption, evil lingers and looks for a way to corrupt. Sometimes we lose sight of that reality when we watch our cute Christmas pageants with shepherds wearing bathrobes, the Three Wisemen draped in silk kimonos, and the Virgin Mary lugging around a Cabbage Patch doll.

In reality, it is difficult to downplay the seemingly raw scandal involved with the birth of Christ; but somehow we have managed. Perhaps we have anesthetized the story’s sting, since it took place long ago and far away.

At Christmas, we properly celebrate the birth of Jesus. What we don’t dwell on is the horror that surrounds it. No matter how elaborate our nativity scenes may be, they seem to have the antiseptic cleanliness of the crosses that we wear as necklaces. Just like you don’t see blood stains on sterling silver jewelry, you don’t really get a sense of how Christmas may have been anxiety-ridden, unsanitized, and vile — a little like real life.

We don’t think about Herod ordering the infanticide of all little boys 2 years old and under after the Magi asked him about Jesus. With the slaughter of the innocents, Christmas ends up as gruesome as Good Friday.

We don’t think about Joseph’s dilemma in discovering that his fiancée was pregnant. Would she be stoned, as was the common practice? Would he divorce her? According to the law of that day, he would have been within his rights.

We don’t think about a frightened, unmarried teenage girl who has been told she will carry the son of God in her belly. How could she explain that to her family and friends—let alone to the man to whom she pledged her faithfulness?

We don’t think about an elderly religious man telling the teenage Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:34—35). That’s a pretty heavy gothic trip for a young girl.

Christmas this year carried the dark shadow of the unspeakable horrors that took place in Newtown, Connecticut. Sad, terrifying, evil, tragic. They all seem like such understatements. Words seem to fail even the most eloquent when we look back on that day.

As Christians, we are not without hope. We rely upon the truth that God is with us. While that provides consolation, our hearts are devastated for the moms and dads that were never able to pick up their children from school. It is at desperate times such as these that words fail and tears flow.

The commentators are aplenty on TV, in the pages of the newspapers, posting up on FaceBook, and trending on Twitter. All of those words, and yet I’m not sure we come any closer to comprehending how something like this can occur. No one can be faulted for asking, “Why?” We have gone over the same philosophical and theological quandaries in the aftermath of too many of these tragedies. Those who wear the collar of the clergy are on hand, but there is very little that can be said that can bring comfort. Holding someone who weeps is perhaps the quintessential means of grace.

At the same time, we are reminded of the very finest of hearts in Newtown who were portraits of care and compassion. Teachers were the first responders, protecting and barricading children – one remarkable teacher held the face of each of her students and told them that she loved them in the event that those would be the last words they heard on this side of eternity. One recalls the words of Jesus, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). In those harrowing moments as gunshots bellowed through the halls, there were also loving hands of mercy and voices of grace and protection that spoke peace to terrified hearts.

As Christians, we follow the one who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” At church on the Sunday following the tragedy, I was reminded of the power of that simple statement from Jesus as the little kids ran around underfoot in between services. And I thought of the Christmas musicals that would be taking place to reenact the coming of the Messiah. And I thought about the lobster and octopus and penguins and Spiderman from Love Actually. And then I thought about the manger scene on the movie set in Italy.

Even though a snake may slither through the manger, I was reminded that Christmas remains the only light sparked in a cave that can illuminate the human soul and bring peace in the midst of chaos.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

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