The news on December 1, 2006 included a report that the city of St. Albans, West Virginia had decided to include in its holiday display a scene of a manger, a star, shepherds, camels and a palm tree. Missing because of concerns over “the separation of church and state,” according to an Associated Press report, were Mary, Joseph and the baby. The park superintendent who apparently ordered the unpopular omission argues that this is not “technically” a manger scene.
I can agree with him on that. What is a manger scene without Jesus? You can have your bath-robed herdsmen and your incandescent spotlight. But what kind of centerpiece can you have in a crèche without a Savior who is Christ, the Lord? Do you shine the light on the camels? The palm tree?
Stories like this irk traditionalists because they think secularists in our nation are trying to take away the familiar things we hold dear. But is liberal tampering with sentimental traditions the greatest reason to bristle at a baby-less manger scene? People might be just as angry if they tried to ban something of less consequence, like church spires over fifty feet tall or Easter egg hunts.
I make this contrast because I even wonder how many professing Christians understand why Jesus has to be at the center of Christmas. It is more than a story, you know. I fear that many treasure Jesus like they treasure drawing a “Get out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly—only this card says “Get out of Hell Free.” If the baby in the manger merely serves to stir my memories of flannelgraph stories or comes to serve my man-centered theology, then I take his removal personally. I might even start a war over it. The nerve of those liberals and secularists!
But if the baby in the manger set the aside the worship of angels to die and absorb in his body the full wrath of the Father that I deserve, his omission mainly sickens me rather than makes me angry. It is not only a reminder that I live in a world that fails to treasure Jesus, it is a reminder that I have also sought satisfaction in lesser treasures than Jesus. The people he came to save are not only those of European descent who go to church. The people he intended to rescue come from every tribe, tongue and nation and include liberals, secularists, Muslims and other enemies of God like me who can only find an end of the enmity by grace.
Maybe I get angry when I hear “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at Walmart because it takes attention away from my own idolatry. It is a lot easier to question what happened to the plastic Jesus in the public park than it is to wonder why he has been replaced by a ballgame or a TV show or a good novel in my home.