I've been wanting to write about what we're doing at church this year for Advent. I think I'm finally ready to do that now.
Inspired by a worshipping experience one of our newer members had at Christmas time in Minneapolis some years ago, our worship team worked around the question of recontextualizing the manger scene for contemporary circumstances. We wanted to face the question of where would the Christ child be born today. It feels like a particularly pressing question this Advent, as we come off a year in which the world faced a tsunami, devastating hurricanes, and earthquakes. A year in which the U.S. was faced with our own staggering poverty and systemic inequity that results in the abandonment of the poor, the elderly, children, and racial minorities. If the Christ child were to be born today, we concluded, it would be into one of these scenes of need and devastation.
We talked about the way the manger scene has been romanticized and sanitized--it's a cozy barn, with gentle animals and a warm trough that serves appropriately as a tiny cradle. We have lost the edge of the story--that God-Incarnate was born with nothing. God-Incarnate was born to the poor, not in a wealthy palace, not to Herod, not to the powerful.
So Saturday, for the "Hanging of the Greens," we created our creche scene in response to these reflections. The results are quite moving to me--and I'm sorry I don't have pictures yet to post and show you. (Pictures are now added here.)
We covered the baptistery at the front of the chancel, then built a roof frame out of two-by-fours that come off the wall above the baptistery at unsettling angles. We covered this frame with blue tarps, to create a make-shift roof. We laid a dirty brown ground cloth over the edge of the baptistry and down along the floor of the chancel in front of it. Then we lay out two sleeping bags. We had some chunks of an old brick wall, with morter still visible, and some cinderblocks and we set these along some back edges. We also brought in an old shopping cart that had been abandoned (well away from any grocery store). We tossed some paperbags full of empty cans and a blanket or two in there and set that in the space as well. Someone found an empty glass milk bottle. They put some ugly plastic flowers in that and added that to the scene. We brought in a bucket of dry, brown leaves and scattered them around the scene and on top of the roof.
Coming out of the chancel and into the sanctuary, we hung some old, salvaged, double-hung windows--extending the scene in the front out to the sanctuary itself. We covered some of those windows with newspapers as is common in empty or abandoned buildings. I used want-ads, real estate announcements (obscene house prices listed), and recent headlines to line the windows.
I also spray painted large pieces of plywood with flourescent orange paint. One with the words "Save Us" another with "Need Water" and a smaller one with the word "Help."
We also hung a dark blue banner with scattered mirrors upon it, some of them (broken fragments) formed into a large star that hangs over the scene. It is, in some sense, the only beautiful element in the scene.
Oh, and the Advent Wreath? This is front and center for the whole scene. We constructed it out of an empty, thirty(?) gallon oil drum set on top of some newspaper. We placed a round, metal tray over it and set out the four Advent candles around that. In the center, we turned over an empty, (label-removed) stew can. We placed tea lights around and on top of the stew can, to create the effect of a fire coming out of the barrel, as you'll often see folks warming themselves around. These tea lights remained lit during the service. On Christmas Eve we'll replace the tea lights on top of the stew can with the tall Christ candle.
The effect, with all of this together, in a worship space that is usually transformed into something serene and inviting at Christmas time, was astounding to me. After it was complete, I wanted to simply sit there and take it in. For me, this is the very reality that the Word-Incarnate has something to say to.
I was very nervous about the reception of this scene by the congregation. I worry that some folks will think we did it only for the shock value. And yet, I don't think that is true at all. Honestly, I couldn't get a read on the congregation. From my perspective, there was a sort of roaring silence about it all. But other folks asked people directly about how they felt about it and they seemed to be taking it in stride. Is this a good thing?
For my own worshipping experience, I decided to pray with my eyes open through the whole service. I felt as though I was being asked, in this Advent season, to keep my eyes open to God's world, the world God loves.