As I was setting up my nativity scene I looked more closely at it and was a little puzzled by the haggard, almost tortured, looks of the villagers in my set. This set was given to me as a gift, a precepio, Italian nativity set, made by Fontanini in Lucca. My friend Cindy used to live in Lucca and she assures me that not all the figures looked as anguished as mine. Now that she is back in the States, she wishes she had purchased a set to remind her of her Lucchese friends, as many of the figures bear a little bit of a resemblance to people she knew.
But as I was assembling the pieces I had to wonder at the accuracy of the scene. There are the aforementioned figurines, who may be actually somewhat accurate as the angels did announce the birth to the shepherds, humble and rugged outdoorsmen; yet oddly the figures of Mary and Joseph, who would have had cause to be haggard or anguished-looking after their ordeal, instead look rested and serene. The wooden stable is clean and even quaint, but the real stable would probably have been stone, either a cave or the lower level of a stone building, with dwelling space above, and the animal stalls below, dark and damp. The manger looks more remarkably like a crib than a feeding trough, which probably would have been hewn from stone along one wall rather than fashioned from wood, small and delicate, fitting only the little baby.. And my animal figures are looking so cute and quiet off to the side, gazing at the babe in the manger, rather than occupying the majority of the stable, dirty, snorting and stinking.
No, I think the real scene literally smelled to high heaven. Instead of the fragrant incense which rises to heaven as an offering, He was placed where the smell of manure, urine and animals rose…a sign of the stinking, unjust world He came to redeem. He endured the stench of sin so that we could become the sweet-smelling aroma of praise to God. The babe in the manger took his first breath of life on earth amid the refuse of the world. But even there the fragrance of new life emerged, and He was praised by the angels and shepherds, a faint wisp of fresh air entering the world.
With this picture, my little nativity scene looks so tidy, so modern…so sterile.
copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider