One of my favorite traditions over the past few years has occurred during the children's messages in worship during the Sundays of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. I don't remember where the idea originally came from, but I have taken it and made it my own, and I don't know who looks forward to it more–the children or me.
As a Moravian I was raised with the tradition of the Putz (from the old German "to decorate" pronounced "Put-s") or as they are better known, the Nativity, Manger Scene, or Crèche. Putz often differ from the traditional manger scene because they typically contain multiple scenes from the Christmas story laid out in such a way for the viewer to journey with Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then follow the Shepherds' and Magi journeys as well. Sometimes the Putz begins with a prophet announcing the coming Christ child. Elaborate or simple, in churches or homes–each one varies, and each is special in its own way. I love how they give us visual glimpses into Scripture, and allow us to experience the story of Christ's birth in ways that help us integrate our own story into Christ's story.
For a number of years, even before I started seminary, I enjoyed spending time in worship with the children building the Putz. We would add a few pieces each week to help us prepare for the coming of the Christ child. I found it was a great way to help the children experience Advent's waiting and preparation time, since they could see it was coming together but was never finished until Christmas Eve when baby Jesus arrived. Many years it continued until Epiphany when the Magi would finally arrive on the scene with their gifts for the baby.
One year the church I was serving did a sermon series for Advent, so we were able to match up the pieces to add each week with the topic for the day. The past few years the church I was serving used the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), so I tried my best to match the pieces we added each week to the Scripture text. Sometimes it worked better than others. With the RCL I was usually able to begin with the Prophet and make sure he was on the scene albeit off to the side as to not actually be standing in the barn itself.
I remember last Christmas giving thanks under my breath as the first children's message of the Advent season finished. We had introduced the Prophet Isaiah to begin the Putz since he matched the lectionary readings for the day. Coming up with a "Prophet Isaiah" figure to add to the Putz was a challenge, since no set I have ever seen has any prophets in it. Thankfully I had an extra shepherd from a different set that worked just fine. My prayer of thanksgiving and sigh of relief came when none of the children remembered that the year before the same figure served as the Prophet Jeremiah.
Though Scripture does not explicitly name the animals that were present, we added the animals one week, since we all know that no Putz would be complete without the whole barnyard there to watch as baby Jesus is born! I had managed to scrounge up enough animals so that each child could come up and put an animal in the scene. It was quite the menagerie and the whole barnyard was crowded, but the kids had a blast adding their animal to the scene. We had roosters, chickens, donkeys, cows, sheep, goats — in plastic and wood of all different sizes — you name it we had it! When the dust settled around the scene and the kids had gone back to their seats, I couldn't help but chuckle as I found animals on the roof, inside and outside the barn, standing on all four feet, and upside down. It was a total mess and it was beautiful! I wonder if Mary ever looked around after Jesus' birth and had similar thoughts–what a mess, and how beautiful!
The Sunday after Christmas (when it is not yet Epiphany) provids a great opportunity to have the Shepherds arrive on the scene to find the Christ child. Adding the Shepherds and more sheep to the scene always reminds me of the chaos that must have been going on in the story that we do not always see at first glance in the words on the page.
The Magi appear at the manger for Epiphany as Luke and Matthew's Gospels combined to complete the story. I often added them to the scene earlier, but they were much farther away, and we moved them closer and closer each week as Epiphany got closer. It is fun to help the children realize that Christmas is a whole season and Epiphany is as well. There is a rhythm to the year in the Church that helps us live into the stories of our faith.
All of these memories aside, my most favorite part of building the Putz came on Christmas Eve. Last Christmas I felt like a child myself as I got to walk out at the start of the Christmas Eve Children's lovefeast and deliver baby Jesus to the manger (A lovefeast is a Moravian worship service of carols and simple food like a bun or roll, coffee, and lit candles that are served in the sanctuary during the singing). The children knew Christmas could not officially begin until baby Jesus was placed in the manger, and I had the privilege of making sure he arrived safely. It was exciting to see the children's eyes get big as they stood or sat on their knees in the pew in order to see that baby Jesus was indeed in place and the festivities could begin. All of our preparations and waiting during Advent had finally paid off. We could breathe a collective sigh of relief that Christmas did come again this year and indeed Jesus Christ was born this day in the city of David — and in our Putz as well. "Joy to the World, the Lord is come" again this year and every year–just as the old story lives again in our lives each Christmas.
May our Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons be times of preparation and joy as we journey together through the stories of our faith again this year, and may the Christ Child appear in the manger and in our lives anew!