If you attended the Christmas play we produced weekend before last, you know that one of the key plot twists I put into the story was that a baby Jesus goes missing.
In our story, Mr. and Mrs. Hinkle hire young actors to stage a live nativity scene every night for a month in an attempt to “put Christ back in Christmas”, a glowing, plastic Jesus as the central prop. Midway through the story the Hinkles are enraged to discover that the baby Jesus has apparently been stolen, seeing in the act clear evidence of what some people refer to as the “war on Christmas.” The culprit, however is an eight year old orphaned boy who lives with his blind Grandmother. He has taken the baby Jesus in the hope that it might have the power to heal his grandma of her blindness. Alas, it does not succeed in doing this in the manner he had hoped.
The weekend of the play, we marveled that life seemed to be imitating art when a Parsippany Patch article reported the theft of a baby Jesus stolen from somebody’s front yard. According to the article, the baby Jesus was valued at $80, making the one Greg Elbin bought for us seem like a real bargain at $40.
But as it turns out, the theft of the baby Jesus is quite common. Run a Google search and you will find no shortage of stories of such thefts. Earlier this month the New York Post featured an article with the bombastic head line: “Churches on High Alert As Baby Jesus Thefts Spike.”
It’s so common that there is even a Wikapedia article entitled “Baby Jesus theft” detailing a lengthy history of such thefts. There I learned that way back in 1953 the Christmas Eve episode of Dragnet had Sergeants Friday and Smith called to a church to investigate the theft of a baby Jesus. Unable to solve the crime, the officers tell the priest that midnight Mass must be celebrated without the Baby Jesus. Spoiler alert: Before it is time for the mass to begin, the baby Jesus is returned when a little boy arrives with it in his wagon. He tells the priest that he had vowed that if he got a wagon for Christmas, Baby Jesus would have the first ride. The episode was so popular that it was the only episode to appear in all three Jack Webb versions of the series.
I read about a nativity scene in the center of town in Carlinville, Illinois that over the years has repeatedly had its baby Jesus stolen. Nonetheless this year the Rotary Club went out and bought a new baby Jesus valued at $1000, making Parsippany baby Jesuses seem downright cheap.
Unfortunately, this $1000 baby Jesus was also stolen. According to the article I read, the police department was working hard to track down the thief. An update of the article reported that this past Friday night at 11:30 someone drove by the nativity scene and threw the baby Jesus out of the window and took off. The update concluded by saying “The baby Jesus is currently with the police department and will be returned to the Rotary Club as soon as possible” — leaving me wondering what exactly was happening down there at the police station. Dusting for fingerprints? An interrogation? Was baby Jesus given a lawyer?
The rash of thefts has led to extreme measures being taken in some quarters to try and protect the baby Jesus. Sometimes the baby Jesus has been chained down to a cement base. But others have resisted such moves on principle: One Indiana man who suffered the loss of his Baby Jesus rebuffed suggestions to secure the Baby Jesus on his porch, pointing out that “it would be like putting Jesus in jail.”
In 2008 a security device distributor offered its surveillance cameras and GPS devices during the month of December to 200 non-profit religious institutions free of charge to help protect baby Jesus. In some instances, a GPS device hidden inside the baby Jesus succeeded in leading police to the missing figurine and the quick apprehension of the culprits.
As I mentioned before, sometimes stolen baby Jesuses are returned. USA Today ran story a couple of years back about a baby Jesus who showed up on the owner’s front porch eight months after being stolen. Attached to the Baby Jesus were photos of his adventures: from hanging out in someone’s kitchen to sitting on a bicycle.
In our recent Christmas play, the little boy feels ashamed when he discovers the outrage he has created, leading him to sneak the baby back with a note apologizing, saying he never intended to steal the baby, he just wanted to borrow it.
Now people shouldn’t be going around stealing baby Jesuses out of nativity scene.
But we who are familiar with the Christmas Gospel know that you don’t need to attach a GPS unit to track down the real baby Jesus.
According to Luke, nobody was in a hurry to steal the original baby Jesus, because for the most part, he was altogether ignored and overlooked. There was no room for him in the inn. He was born to a homeless family, who in short order would become political refugees from the violence of King Herod. His first visitors were poor, lonely shepherds who were otherwise unwelcome in town. But they were welcome at the manger where God incarnate chose to dwell. All are welcome here.
In the finale of our play, the glowing, plastic baby Jesus gets replaced by a flesh and blood baby, who happens to be the infant son of a recently homeless single mother. The mother takes over the role of Mary.
And so you can find the baby Jesus in all sorts of places if only you have the eyes, or should I say the heart to perceive him. We find him whenever we are moved by the truth that Jesus was born humble and poor and that the most tender places in the heart of God are reserved for folks in danger of having no warm, safe place to sleep tonight — for whom Christmas dinner will be hard to come by this year, and for whom a decent meal any day of the week might be only a dream.
And he is also with those among us, who, especially at this dark season of the year, find ourselves profoundly aware of our own poverty of spirit. For all who for whatever reason find ourselves unable to experience the joy and peace that is the expectation of this season, whether by grief, depression, isolation, family conflicts or health concerns.
If you are one such person, see yourself in those poor shepherds, the outcastes of the world, living in land of deep darkness. Appreciate his name: name is “Emmanuel – God with us – God here in the muck of life sharing all the broad range of experience that makes up human life.
If the deep darkness is familiar to you, know that this is uniquely your child. You are the one for whom a bright light has come, for whom a child is given.
And for those of us for whom joy does come easily on this Christmas Eve night, know that you also don’t need a GPS to locate the real baby Jesus. He is as near as the next act of generosity shown to someone for whom a moment of kindness will make all the difference – sometimes for the rest of their lives. The light that has come into the world is there in every act of selfless sacrifice offered for another. He is present whenever we recognize the truth that every single human being on the face of the planet is welcome at the manger.
“Be not afraid,” said the Angel of the Lord. “For I bring you good news of great joy to all people. For this day in the city of David a child is born who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”