I set the familiar scene a different way this year. Always before, I’ve laid them out the same: the three kings line one side of the mantel, the shepherd and his sheep flank the other. Mary and Joseph bend beside the manger, and the angel stands guard in the center of the lineup, her curved wings arcing over the sleeping baby.
This year, I changed things up. I only did it because I craved more symmetry. The shepherd with his little sheep couldn’t quite balance the towering magi. So I plucked the angel from her perch and set her off to one side, out behind the shepherd. Now, there were four tall worshippers on the one side of the baby: Mary and the kings; and three on the other: Joseph, the shepherd, and the angel. It seemed more even. I moved on to the wooden Nutcracker and the felt-jacketed Santa Claus.
But as I continued bustling about the room, unwrapping glass ornaments from paper sheaths and lifting gingerbread men from nests of styrofoam, the ceramic figures kept catching my eye. I may have evened out the mantel, but I feared I had torn a gash in the fabric of the universe. With no angel to back him up, who knew what might befall that sleeping baby?
I began to wonder if, in my unthinking rearrangement, I had stumbled onto a deeper theological truth. Angels are all over the Biblical account of Christ’s birth, of course--so much announcing and annunciating to do. Angels appear to Mary, Joseph, Mary’s cousin-in-law Zechariah, and the shepherds in the field. But Luke specifically informs us that when the angels finished delivering the birth announcement to the shepherds, they went back to heaven. Which means that by the time the shepherds and, later, the wise men arrived at the stable, Jesus had already been left alone with humanity.
God the Father is no helicopter parent. He leaves his only Son in the care of a couple of untrained teenagers. No backup angel squad waits in the wings. Angels do tend to Jesus after his forty days of fasting in the desert; other than that, angels don’t appear on earth during Jesus’ lifetime. As the Son of God hangs dying on the cross, passersby mock, “Let God rescue him now if he wants him!” Nobody shows up.
The birth and death and resurrection of God is a mystery. The angel on the periphery of my nativity scene reminds me that, as Peter tells us, “even angels long to look into these things.” Angels do not hover over the Holy One. They peer longingly from the sidelines, wondering what in the world the King of the Universe is going to do next.
When the angel presided over the center of the creche, she seemed like the host of the party. Mary winces through her after-pains, and Joseph stands there all blinkered and dazed, neither of them in any shape to chitchat with sheep wranglers. But the angel at the center of the nativity always seemed to declare, “Come on in! Glad you’re here! Heaven’s got this! This one’s on us!”
But with the angel on the sidelines, this looks like a no-host nativity. Heaven steps back and waits to see how each human being on earth will engage with the One who turned water into wine. Some worship. Some crucify. Some just keep walking. Who will pay the tab?
Not to worry. There is a host here, after all. With the angel out of the way, we can see the Host for who he really is: all twenty inches and seven pounds of him, sleeping in the manger. The tab will be paid.