My freshman year in college I was recruited to give one of my nights of Christmas break to stand outside for an hour. I was dressed in a robe, a beard that hung from my ears, and a towel on my head. Our group of college friends stood among a series of painted wood cut-outs and waved at people as they drove through the church parking lot. Most of the people would take a picture from their cars and drive away. I am certain that I remember that evening in the freezing cold more than the passersby and onlookers. I remember the frozen snot in the beard, loosing feeling in my fingers, and the laughter that we all shared as we stood there on that cold winter’s night at the corner of Henderson Road and Sawmill Road in Columbus, Ohio.
Have you ever been to a living nativity? What was your experience? What do you remember?
Every year we get accused of producing a living nativity at HarvestDowntown; and every year I find myself correcting people. We refuse to have a living nativity; instead, we offer an Interactive Nativity to those who are willing to stop, get out of their cars, and engage with the nativity. We have no interest in merely waving at people as they drive by. Nor do we use wood cut-outs of animals.
Is there something inherently wrong with a living nativity, or animal cut-outs? It all depends on the purpose of it.
We have an ingrained desire at HarvestDowntown to call people into an active relationship with Jesus as their Savior, Redeemer, Healer, and Supreme Authority. We don’t believe that a wood cut-out of the nativity calls people to such a relationship. We can’t see how such a scene confronts people with the truth or reality of the Incarnation.
We also believe that the church is called to follow the example of Jesus’ mission and incarnate into her neighborhood. This means that we must talk to people, interact with them, and engage with their lives. A drive-by-nativity cannot afford our neighbors and the church the opportunity to interact with one another about the story of the Incarnation. A living nativity can be amazing to gawk at, but unless one steps into the reality of the First Christmas, can we truly experience the wonder of that night? Does sitting in a warm car waving at characters whose snot has frozen into their beards really force us to consider the Incarnation?
What if the grandma needs to help her grandson clean the donkey manure off his shoes before he gets back into her spotless car? What if the mom finds straw in the car seat days later? What if the teenager has an honest conversation with his dad about why the Creator needed to enter His creation? Will these events confront our neighbors with the Incarnation?
We used to just have the Interactive Nativity in front of the church, but we realized that when people are confronted with the Incarnation they wanted to debrief with one another about what they experienced. Most of the time it was just looking at the pictures on their phones or just laughing about what they saw a toddler do to the goat. But in that conversation and laughter, there was an opportunity to go further into the truth of the Incarnation. So, we opened the doors of the church and served our neighbors hot chocolate and hot cider just to facilitate more conversations and interaction. This grew to live music and homemade cookies – and people hung out a little bit longer. (This is why we have such huge containers of hand sanitizer in our sanctuary!)
So, we refuse to produce a living nativity – because an Interactive Nativity is a much better way to fulfill our mission of confronting our neighbors with the amazing story of the Incarnation and give them the opportunity to consider the implications of such an amazing event.