My parents have a beautiful old crèche that is set up every year with all of the familiar characters: the beatific Mary, slightly dazed-looking Joseph, baby Jesus, three wise men, assorted animals and some shepherds. To my brother and me, this was the original action-figure set, and we spent hours posing the figures and arranging unorthodox new developments. We had a parade of other characters visiting the baby Jesus: hockey players from the knob-hockey set, our sister’s Barbies and, at one point, a figure of Coleman Young, the then-mayor of Detroit. My mother seemed to view all this as heresy, but to us it represented a spiritual truth: Everyone could visit the Christ child, even if you were a goalie for the Maple Leafs or an arms-akimbo waif from Malibu.
I was especially fascinated by the wise men, a racially diverse and exotic group of characters. They carried a real treasure chest, full of things unimaginable (myrrh?). And then, warned of danger, they went home by another way. It is that last part that captivated me; visiting Jesus brought them not to safety but into danger. Because they had visited him, honored him, someone became angry.
There was something deep and wonderful in that.
There still is. Jesus came to unsettle us. He was quite clear about that, too: He created chaos in the temple, challenged those in authority and befriended the outcasts. He came to trouble the water. He challenged everyone he encountered in some way, and those who crossed the path of Jesus didn’t leave in a state of simple contentment. Rather, they are described as being angry or singing with joy or silent with amazement.
The great failure of churches and chapels is that rarely do people leave that way, with strong emotions of joy or anger or amazement. Our faith leaders don’t want that, because it is too dangerous. So the Christ-followers leave church and chapel vaguely content and thinking about what’s for lunch. That’s a betrayal of the faith — the one that started with the first visitors to Jesus having to go home by another way and ended with Christ the victim of torture before an audience, his followers scattered in fear.
This is not a faith of the timid.
What Christ did not often do is come across people and pronounce that they were pretty much fine the way they were. Even Peter, the rock upon whom the church was to be built, suffers Jesus telling him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Yet, modern Christianity does a lot of reassuring that people are just fine the way they are. There is little challenging of those in the pews. Instead, we tend to sit in our bunkers and lob bombs at those people who are not like us. We are living out what Jesus warned about in condemning the Pharisee who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers or even like this tax collector.”
Of course, the troubled waters that Jesus creates sometimes push us in different directions. That is one reason that having divergent views in community and in conversation can be so important. It moves us toward a truth that may be somewhere other than the places we have moved to, having been given a shove by the great disrupter.
A baby’s cry is such a dear and singular sound, evoking emotions we can’t control. And yet that child grows up, and things become more complicated. Underneath it all, in our children of any age, is that baby, that purity, that cry that can stir us. Maybe that is why we love this holiday so much, with a baby in a manger wreathed in love and poverty. It’s a pretty good reason.
Today my brother and I will have a baseball player or a Lego policeman visit that old crèche, because its promise is still true: All are welcome to visit the Christ child. Just be ready to go home by a different way.
Formerly of the Baylor Law School faculty, Mark Osler occupies the Robert & Marion Short Distinguished Chair of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. His 2009 book, “Jesus on Death Row,” critiqued the American death penalty through the lens of Jesus’ trial. His 2016 book, “Prosecuting Jesus,” is a memoir of performing the trial of Jesus in 11 states.