General CBF

The Nativity Puzzle

Bill Cosby was right. Jell-O is delicious and kids really do say the darnedest things. Parents of small children of course know this, but so does anyone who attends a church that has some sort of regular “children’s moment” during worship. And the ministers who lead these moments know it even more.

This past Sunday we had one of these “moments” during our children’s moment. One of our ministers was talking to the children about “signs” and what they mean for us in Advent. The minister asked them what sorts of signs they see in the sanctuary during Advent that remind us of Christmas. Eager hands shot up to answer the question. “Candles!” said one, pointing to the Advent candles. “Wreathes!” said another, looking to the greenery on the window shutters. “The bells!” said another, pointing to the handbells that has just offered a Christmas anthem.

And then another child, pointing to the large nativity set to the right of the chancel, “The puzzle!”

“The what?” asked the minister, just to make sure he heard correctly.

“The puzzle!” said the child again, still pointing to the nativity.

Now, the child was probably referring to our practice of adding different characters or “pieces” to the nativity set each week during worship. That alone is very observant. But to think of the nativity as a puzzle?

That is a brilliance only a child could muster.

Like many good metaphors, the image of the “nativity puzzle” was immediately unsettling–not in a negative sense, but in the sense that it suddenly shifts your perspective. But it also lingered, at least for me. I keep coming back to it.

What might it mean for the nativity to be a puzzle?

Each piece adds something special, and the image would not be complete with out each of them? Yes, but that seems to be just the beginning.

We physically “put it together” over the course of these four weeks, and symbolically “put together” the themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. That’s good, but I think we can go further.

Perhaps the nativity is like a puzzle in the sense that it is something that on the surface is very simple — pieces of cardboard cut in different pieces, or a diagram filled with simple letters or numbers — but within this simplicity lies a much deeper level of meaning and truth. Behind these wooden carvings, or perhaps within them, lies something much greater than the sum of all the parts.

Now, the nativity is not a puzzle we should hope to “solve.” It is not a “problem.” I’m not sure we can ever hope to “solve” the incarnation.

But seek to understand? Labor over and wrestle with, with the desire to see more? Or, even better, like a child “play” with it? Now we’re on to something.

Nor is it a “riddle.” The birth of Christ is not a play on words or a ruse designed to trick us.

But a puzzling, but beautiful mystery? That is good news.

Mysteries to be known must be entered into…For we do not solve mysteries, we enter into them. The deeper we enter into them, the more illumination we get. Still greater depths are revealed the further we go. -Diogenes Allen

As we continue to move closer to Christmas, may we continue to add pieces to the puzzle, continue to unfold the mystery. And may it reveal to us greater depths, still. Merry Christmas.

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