The gospel writers provided the outline, the artists ran with the ball

Spread out across the top of an old glassed-in bookcase in our living room is a creche — a nativity scene — that depicts the birth of Jesus: Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, shepherd, animals, all those chosen to witness what Christian theology came to call the Incarnation, are there.

We keep our set up all year round; the silence is arresting.  

Creche comes from the Old French crèche meaning feeding trough or manger, the basis of the much-loved Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger.”

(And, editorially speaking, with respect to Christmas carols, Nicholas Parker, at the New York Public Library, said, “Christmas songs in the pop or jazz music canon, such as “Let It Snow,” “Last Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “White Christmas,” etc., don’t count as Christmas carols! A carol has to be traditional or biblical in nature.” QED.)

As a kid, I was taken with the word manger — I have no idea why — the Greek is φάτνη — the Christmas committee in some churches pack their manger with straw to make things look real.

The Methodist Church in our community used to have a “living creche” they set up along the main road; in the cold of December, parishioners gathered round the child to relive the first Christmas. A teacher from the high school brought a lamb for nuance.

I still admire those who gave up their evenings that way but I wonder if any passersby got something from it: Did it affect their view of Christmas, or Jesus, or what it means to be part of a Christ-like community?

Since nobody at Jesus’s birth wrote about what they saw, their story died with them — the gospel writers never met them and no oral tradition passed it on.

Thus, it was up to painters, poets, writers, and makers of ceramic statues to say how people looked, how many there were, where they stood in relation to the child, and the expression on each face as if in a photograph.

In terms of accuracy: The gospel writers provided the outline, the artists ran with the ball.

The characters in our creche are sizeable: The wise men measure 10 inches tall and have full bodies; the same for Joseph. There is no stable or covering so our scene is al aire libre.

Center stage is the child Jesus stretched out in a manger, looking upward. The gospel writer Luke says — the only evangelist other than Matthew to write about the event — “And she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”

They said it took place in a stable — later they said a cave — because the family had no money, but the truth is the little town of Bethlehem was flooded with out-of-towners reporting for a census — every room everywhere was full. So the family could have had money.

Older people remember, “there was no room for them in the inn” but the New International translation says, “because there was no guest room available for them.”

And swaddling clothes? Old creche scenes show the boy wrapped round and round in a bundle of wide ribbon; biblical scholars went back to the Greek and came up with “cloths.”

Thus Luke 2:7 now reads, “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” “Cloths” and “guest room” are new; “manger” remains.

(Paradoxically) the scholars were hoping the text could provide context.

In our creche, Mary is kneeling next to the child — the colors of her robes are a Rorschach test.

For a long time, I thought Joseph got the short end of the stick — though I think he saw deeper into who the child was than the mother: though they both knew they had a gifted and talented kid on their hands, with intimations of divinity.

I’m not saying Mary was on the outs, just that Joseph and the boy spent time together in the wood shop and, as woodworking artists know, the silence of wood runs deep.

Some scripturalists treat Joseph like he was a piece of wood, instead of a man trying to solve a problem. That is, Matthew says, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”

As in: Mary says to her boyfriend, “Joe, I’d like to get married but there’s something you ought to know first.”

And Joseph, because he was, as the Bible says, “faithful to the law, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

What! It’s not even Christmas Eve and Jesus’s parents are getting divorced!

I have inches-thick commentaries explaining what the gospel writers meant by virgin birth — virgin as in sex with a spirit doesn’t count.

A modern-day version would have Joseph staring down every guy who came near the house and checking Mary’s cellphone when she went into the shower.

Our set has one shepherd, who’s as tall and wide as the wise men. Draped over his left arm is a lamb in easy repose.

Animal-wise, our set includes a camel, a donkey, and the lamb: the lamb a projection of the lamb of God Christians sing about in their liturgy: “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” then they say “have mercy on us,” which means they believe the lamb is a god.

At night, a stressed-out Joseph dreams of an angel who tells him not to worry but “to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”

Again, as if a Holy Spirit “intervening” your wife should get a religious discount.

The angel tells Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

There’s a doctoral dissertation in the creche thing: an analysis of the facial expressions of each of the characters in a Christmas creche. The research design could include examining the top 1,000 creches ever made — however determined, however randomly selected — to see how many witnesses the purveyors project were there, what their faces looked like — how elicitive of truth — was the family poor?

I wish all the souls in our creche could speak so I might interview them like a Rolling Stone reporter at the first Woodstock, dated 0 B.C./0 A.D.

Luke says, “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”

Which we expect of shepherds, but then it gets weird: “An angel of the Lord [appears] to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

They must have thought it was an invasion from Mars.

The angel tells them not to worry but to go to Bethlehem and find a new-born “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger,” then the light show begins because it says: “a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to every living soul.’”

The shepherds must have thought they were seeing The Mormon Tabernacle Choir dosed on acid.

And yet they “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,” and find, “Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”

Then they lose it altogether, the gospel says, “When they [the shepherds] had seen him . . . [the child Jesus] they [went out] and spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Spread the word? What word! Everybody amazed? At what! What did the shepherds say? And who was taking care of their sheep!

(The shepherds were the first apostles.)   

This is the best Christmas I ever had. How about you? Does your creche have a manger?