By David Williamson.
My favorite Christmas nativity scene comes from the French region of Provence. I first discovered this scene in the lobby of a local French hotel. At first glance, it looked like another Christmas nativity scene or crèche. But at a second glance, I stopped in my tracks and noticed something very different from all the traditional crèches that surface during Advent.
Unlike the standard, traditional scenes of magi and shepherds and animals along with Mary and Joseph and infant Jesus in the manger, this holy family was being visited by people of the village: local craftsmen and businesspeople. Various characters from the village were bringing gifts of their trades and professions – the fruits of their productivity. A baker brought fresh bread, a blacksmith brought horseshoes, a grocer brought fresh produce, a milliner brought a hat, a knitter brought mittens and a cap, a scissor-grinder brought scissors, a fisherman brought a fresh catch, a butcher brought choice cuts, and (of course) a chestnut-seller brought chestnuts.
As I looked at the santons (“little saints”) I quickly thought of a more contemporary line up of “little saints” bring samples of their 21st century work: a new piece of technology designed or sold by a computer software specialist, a stethoscope by a physician, a car part by a mechanic, a painting by a painter, a saw by a carpenter, etc, etc. In our modern economy, perhaps we might be tempted to substitute some form of cash (or maybe PayPal) since for most of us, money is the most tangible thing we personally take home from our work.
The practice of bringing santons to the baby Jesus began during the French Revolution when large, traditional manger scenes were outlawed. This became subtle and important way to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
I appreciate the image of people bring the product of their actual work, and offering Jesus both the product and – perhaps more significantly – the work itself, the process. Just as the baby Jesus and the holy family were blessed by the visit and the tangible and symbolic gifts of the magi and the shepherds, so today God can and will be blessed by the sometimes-hidden gifts of our work.
Christmas does signify the tangibleness of the incarnation: God becoming human flesh and blood, incarnated, tangible, material, in Jesus. So, too, can the tangible products of our hands be offered as gifts to the infant Jesus: real-life products from the real-life hands and brains of human creatures, all gifts from God to be used for mutual benefit, and in the more explicit work of God, the mission of God’s people in the world that God crated and loves. God came, incarnated in tangible human form, like us in every way (except sin), equipped us to work with hands and brain to form and manipulate, to use the world for God’s purposes.
Today’s santons – perhaps that is each of us – can be encouraged through these santons to look at our work as important, as significant, as contributing eventually to the well-being of the whole community. Therefore our working is itself a blessing for ourselves, our families, our communities, and even to God.
And this encourages me to value my work, and the work of others throughout our economy, and quietly but enthusiastically present it as a gift to the Christ child, the savior of the world.