During Advent, an epiphany at the Met

Each year, beginning the day after Thanksgiving, the Metropolitan Museum in New York exhibits its Neapolitan Crèche. The nativity scene remains on display until Epiphany Sunday. I try to visit it at least once per week throughout the season. It is my favorite theologian.

The exhibition consists of more than one 100 figures, ranging from six to twenty inches in height. Created in Naples in the 18th century, the scene mingles the Holy Family, the shepherds and Magi, a bevy of stunning angels, and, perhaps most striking, a crowd of colorful townspeople and peasants.

Regally dressed kings, some from exotic places in Africa and Asia, enter the scene atop horses, camels, or elephants. They have come from all corners of the earth to seek out the newborn King. An exhausted shepherd lies asleep in the field while a hard-working blacksmith looks on disdainfully. A traveling band of lute players and a monkey with cymbals entertain by the roadside, while a destitute, blind man sings along wildly. A fisherman casts a net in the hope of catching dinner, while a herdsmen coaxes a lost sheep off a craggy cliff. Contemplatives study quietly by candlelight in caves, while a lone pilgrim walks the hillside, all of his worldly possessions strapped to his back.

And in the center of the scene, positioned in front of the ruins of a Roman temple, are Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Oxen and mules peer out to see the Holy Family. A stately stag stands to the right of Mary, his quiet power exuding a beautiful calm. A curious and courageous lamb places his front paws on the crib, stretching his neck to gaze at the baby.

Like the Magi, visitors arrive from cities and towns throughout the world to view a piece unlike any other work of art at the enormous, exhaustive Met. For some, the crèche is a destination. Other, accidental pilgrims happen upon the scene by chance. They are professional and bohemian, tattooed and elegant, cynical and intrigued, faithful and secular, toddlers and seniors, urban dwellers and suburban types. Many take the unexpected invitation to identify with the characters before them.

Throughout the nativity scene it is clear that, no matter what their position in life, some characters are much more aware than others that God has become incarnated in their midst. While some shepherds focus on their flock, others look heavenward, as if hearing an irresistible voice. Some merchants turn away from their goods to look out into the distance, while others continue to haggle over prices. A child points in the direction of the manger, while his parents are engrossed in idle chatter. A well-heeled man turns away doubtfully, while an aristocratic lady seems to consider the possibilities.

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Though the crèche is a moving, delightful, and exquisite product of expert craftsmanship, the theological insight that it communicates is far more priceless. Each gesturing figure, illuminated candle, basket of fruit, and flowing fountain, seems to brim forth with the message that God is always fully alive in our midst.

Even those who hold an ardent commitment to “keep Christ in Christmas,” often just focus on the “silent night” “away in a manager” in the “little town of Bethlehem.” But the theological reality of Christmas, the glorious mystery of the Incarnation, is so much more profound and awe-inspiring than even the dramatic story of Jesus’ birth.

The Incarnation tells the story of the way in which an all-powerful, almighty God decides to meet us where we are and become vulnerable to human life. God chooses to be enfleshed and live out our very human stories: all of our longings and our struggles, our boredoms and banalities, our laughter and our joys. God takes this risk on us in an ardent desire to feed us, heal us and be known by us.

By immersing Godself in human life, God performs a remarkably ordinary, almost human deed. God takes a chance on loving us, the way we take a chance when we allow ourselves to love someone. God wants to be known to us, the way we want someone we love to know us. God breaks through in our world, and, by doing that, risks being broken by us.

Some moments of experiencing God’s presence are intense and palpable. God is alive in our midst any time that we can find hope in the midst of darkness; be grateful in the face of limits or deprivation; feed those who hunger in body, mind or spirit; embrace our own brokenness enough to love without reservations or conditions. These are realizations of the Incarnation. But the crèche also reminds us that the Incarnation in not a one time event, or an uncommonly powerful moment, but on-going presence in our day-to-day reality. It challenges us to find the eternal in our everyday lives.

The crèche appears at the end of a long corridor lined with ancient sarcophagi and reliquaries, Medieval chalices and clerical adornments, crumbling statues and faded icons. It is placed in front of a massive 52 foot by 42 foot Spanish grille that was once used to divide one part of a cathedral off from the rest of the sacred space. When the crèche is exhibited, these equally invaluable objects seem to fade into the background, like repetitive roadside scenery on a long car trip. The relics in the corridors cannot emit the nativity’s fullness of life. The story it celebrates and the scene it creates remains captivating enough to stop museum wanderers in their tracks.

Perhaps this is because, like any great creation, whether in nature or art, the crèche transforms our eyes so that we can learn to more see deeply. It captures a profoundly human moment in ordinary life. And, it teaches us that, in all of our moments, no matter how commonplace or profane, God is breaking through and waiting to be recognized.

[Jamie Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology, personal commitments and sexual ethics with Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley. A writer based in New York, she is the former editor in chief of the Yale magazine Reflections. As a lay minister she has worked extensively with New York City's homeless and poor populations. She is a member of the national board of the Women's Ordination Conference.]

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