One after the other, the colorful figures are loaded onto the truck. First comes the gentle lamb, its legs folded under. Then come the Wise Men from afar, dressed in robes of gold and purple, followed by the steadfast father dressed in the well-worn tunic of a humble workman. Last of all, comes the adoring young mother dressed in blue, kneeling by her joyful infant who rests on a bed of straw.
And as the door slides shut, the figures are wrapped in deep darkness. Another Nativity scene has been removed from public view. The worker pauses for a moment and wonders if he hasn’t removed something more than a simple holiday decoration.
Bangor held a “Festival of Lights” event on Dec. 7 rather than celebrating Christmas. In past years, a nearby city has offered the choice of a movie, a magic show, face-painting or belly dancing as part of its Festival of Lights.
Such festivals purport to advance the cause of pluralism and tolerance, but there is much more at work in these festivals of lights than mere tolerance. In a society given over to secular and commercial values, a Festival of Lights is more useful and profitable than a nativity scene.
The stillness of a starry December night reveals our barking commercialism as loud and tawdry. The bliss in Mary’s smile confounds those who find joy in material goods. Joseph’s steadfast loyalty causes an ache in the heart of a nation of broken families. The image of the Christ child radiant with divinity and vulnerable humanity offends those who believe in a woman’s right to choose.
The nativity scene is more than an offense to pluralism, and therein lies the real reason why these displays are no longer welcome. Nativity scenes illumine the errors of a wayward civilization. We only need to listen to the local news to know our civilization is on a dark and dangerous path. Amid the thronging masses of shoppers, the poor go unnoticed; the quiet voice of God is drowned out by the blare of sports and music; and the true image of man is hidden behind the smiling faces of happy consumers.
But that which is most hidden, and hidden not by accident but by public proclamation, is the scene that lights the way back home.
That is the ultimate meaning behind these worldly festivals of lights. The glittering stars and sparkling candles delight the eye but leave the soul empty — for a society that believes in everything ultimately believes in nothing. The guiding principle behind these festivals is a casual acceptance of all beliefs and a self-flattering open mindedness.
This indifference to truth leaves the onlooker to view a Festival of Lights much as a weary agnostic views the wintry night sky. Alone in the infinite void, he sees the many colored stars twinkling brightly, a pleasant distraction from a world bereft of meaning. In his despair, he may at least console himself with the belief that he is a free-thinker. In the buying, giving and receiving of material goods he may imagine that he has momentarily escaped from the void.
The reflections from the festive tinsel overwhelm the true, inner light that dawns on humanity each Christmas. It is a poor substitute for the divine mystery that shines in Bethlehem.
The nativity scene is more than a lesson in humility, human dignity and family devotion, exemplified in the persons of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It is the answer that fills the longing of each human heart, the answer that lights up and fills the infinite void. It is the coming of a savior to a world that needs a savior more than ever.
And that is the great tragedy of our age. We have said to Jesus and his mother, “Move along, we have no room for you here.”
Fritz Spencer of Old Town is the former editor of the Christian Civic League RECORD.