Kyle led me down the chunky cinder block halls of the cottage to his bedroom. Kyle pointed to the collection of toys that he’d arranged on his blocky wooden desk. A camouflaged soldier and Teen-aged Ninja Mutant Turtle occupied the left side of the desk. Batman and two primary colored Power Rangers faced them from the right. At the center of the display, two play-worn action figures were posed, bent over an awkwardly folded piece of paper.
Kyle stared at me, attempting to provoke some reaction. Giving up, he said, “It’s a Christmas scene.”
A nativity set.
Kyle’s nativity scene was so unlike the smooth porcelain set of my childhood—the one that, every December my parents pulled out of storage. My brother and sisters and I would rush to free the wise men and shepherds from their incarceration, as our imaginations transforming the living room into the Holy Land. Dad would read the Christmas Story from Luke, while we maneuvered the Wise men from their distant home at the piano, across the room, to the infant Christ.
Kyle had stolen most of the action figures from the other boys on the floor. Kyle was a stocky pre-teen with a short temper. His victims hadn’t dared turn to any of the staff for help recovering their toys. Kyle was creating worship. Personal boundaries weren’t going to get in his way.
Kyle’s eyes beamed with pride and concern as I took in his makeshift nativity.
“Do you like it?”
I looked again at the desk. This time discerning Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the cast of adoring shepherds, angels, and wise men.
I took in Kyle’s nativity set and remembered his last home visit in November. A judge had instructed us to prepare Kyle to return home to live with his mother. The ruling left Kyle nervous but elated. He packed his own bags and went home on a Friday. On Saturday he woke up in his own bed… to the rhythm of his mother breaking a hard-wood chair over his back. After we received Kyle back from the hospital, he explained to us that while his mother was beating him, she was cursing and shouting about driving the demons out of her beautiful son so he could return home.
Now at Christmas, Kyle wanted nothing more than to be free of demons, to love Jesus, and to live with his mom.
“Yes Kyle, this is good...real good.”
That was over ten years ago, but Kyle’s nativity set, randomly assembled from the meager options available at the residential treatment center, will never escape my memory.
Ten years later I’ve come to realize that Kyle’s nativity represented the first Christmas far better than the porcelain set of my childhood. My nativity set? The colors of the wise men’s robes all complimented each other and they didn’t even clash with the shepherd’s humble garments. Each figurine—the humble shepherd boy not excluded—enjoyed the muscularity and grace of a Michelangelo. The characters all fit together. They were a set; each molded and painted with a common eye and vision. As if you could walk into a bar and see angels, magi, farm hands, and an expectant couple sitting around a table and think nothing of it.
Yet the cast God assembled to participate in the birth of his son wasn’t color-coordinated or cut from the same stone. They were a tossed together cast, a disparate group—a set of mismatched action figures. They were a teen-aged Jewish virgin and her fiancé, a wealthy band of occultists, underclass gypsy-like shepherds, an arch angel, a country priest, a murderous king, and an ancient adversary. And God collected these players at some tornado bait village on the outskirts of Israel. Today, these characters wouldn’t be on any short-list for a guest appearance on the 700 Club—let alone be considered for a cameo in incarnation.
Jesus was about to interject himself into human history to subvert millennia of personal and institutional corruption. God would wear humanity—skin, hair, and fingernails— in order to create the new humanity. Jesus would break death’s white-knuckled grip on our race. Jesus’ birth would be the fulcrum God would use to leverage earth’s destiny. In other words, it was a major event, and you’d think God could have gathered some suitable witnesses to see his power in action.
God has the ability to stack the deck and deal himself a perfect hand. It’s one of the perks of being God. God could have chosen the respected priests, admired merchants, and even Caesar to announce the birth of his son. At first blush it seems that God missed his moment. This isn’t how people in the know self-promote. But perhaps, just maybe, God’s subversive intentions can be detected in who he chose to accompany his son during his transition from Heaven to Earth.