Is your baby Jesus safely on the shelf?

Published 12:03 am Friday, December 23, 2011

The baby Jesus came riding on an 18-wheeler Monday evening as he made his way to the manger.

It wasn’t exactly like the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, but it was the way Gibson imagined it.

As the truck made its way east across the Hillyer living- room carpet, the wise men followed, although my son was having a hard time differentiating between Joseph and the other three men in flowing robes.

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Mary was easy to spot, being the only female. Though considered divine by some, she shows signs of her mortality with a gash across the top of her head that she sustained during Gibson’s visit to the manger last year. The nativity set was given to him last year by his godmother with specific instructions that the set be played with and not put up on a shelf surrounded by straw, gathering dust. The figurines are large enough that Gibson can manipulate them with his tiny hands.

From the beginning, Gibson played with the figures. Last year he was only 1, so the play amounted to little more than tossing the figures about, which led to Mary’s unfortunate head wound. At 2, Gibson synthesizes more, seeming to use his imagination to create stories, even if they do involve such disparate elements as the Virgin Mary and heavy equipment. For me, the Nativity as play set is a foreign concept. In my childhood, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were never for play.

Each Thanksgiving, my mother would open the white cardboard box filled with Fontanini figurines and a little rough-hewn wooden creche. She carefully unpacked the figures and dusted them off for their annual appearance. She would spend an entire evening arranging the 30 or so pieces, complete with sheep, donkeys and camels. It wasn’t big, yet the entire scene when complete would end up covering the side table in the front foyer. Seeing it unfold each Christmas is one of my favorite childhood memories. But the figurines were tiny and fragile — never meant for children’s hands.

Watching Gibson unload baby Jesus from the back of his toy truck had me warming up to this idea of playing with the Holy Family.

Instead of standing on his toes to see the baby spotlighted in a hands-off display, Gibson actively played with the figurines, calling baby Jesus by name as familiarly as he does Thomas the Train.

Would that we have the same relationship with Christ in our own daily lives. For some, Jesus is ever-present — a teacher, a comforter, a healer, a friend. Others unpack their Christianity at major life events — dust it off, use it ever so gingerly and then put it back up on a shelf until the next opportunity.

Their relationship with Christ is like the tiny fragile figure in my mother’s Nativity set — so precious that it is to be seen but not touched. Meanwhile, Christ among us is driving 18-wheelers, waiting tables and living and working next door.

It’s our relationship with the rest of God’s creation that offers us the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Isn’t that what Christ asks us to be — to love one another and to treat our neighbors as ourselves?

I realized Monday that despite the risks of breaking such beautiful figurines, my son’s early engagement with his Nativity set offers a model for how such risks can lead to a greater relationship with Christ and the world.


Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or