When I was very young, friends of my parents gave our family a handmade nativity scene from Spain. Each figure had stiffly coated fabric clothing, and there were delicate, removable golden halos for Mary and Joseph. Baby Jesus’s halo, I remember, was immovable.
A shepherdess carried perfectly sculpted apples in a basket—gifts for the little baby Jesus, or maybe for his hungry parents. Each child in our family would carefully unwrap a piece and set it in place. The set was perfect, except for one thing. Jesus was lily white. Finally, my mom went ahead and used some brown watercolor paint to make him look more like a child born in Bethlehem.
As a parent and Children’s Minister, I read the work of Sofia Cavaletti, Jerome Berryman and Sonja Stewart, who name the experience of being drawn into God through kinesthetic experience. Programs like The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Godly Play and Young Children and Worship help Christian educators see that our role is primarily to make space for children to enter in to the wonder of worship. Acknowledging the multisensory nature of how children learn best, they attest that “biblical stories need to be translated into figures and materials that children can see and move about, giving them a sensorimotor way of responding to God.”
Some children have the privilege of attending churches where they are invited to hold and retell Bible stories every Sunday. Others are told to sit still, don’t touch, and follow directions. But Christmas season is one time when almost all of us know we have a God we can touch. My children breathe deep when I open our Christmas box and delight that our books and decorations carry the “smell of Christmas.” I am praying that that smell, which is burrowing into the folds of their memory, will lead them deeper into knowing, seeking and following this child who makes all things new.
My kids are experiencing Jesus through a nativity scene that was crocheted by a man serving life in a Georgia state penitentiary. He is one of the lucky ones who walked out of Georgia’s death row alive. Some friends in our community have been visiting and corresponding with him for more than 20 years, first when he was on death row and now as he is serving life. He learned to crochet in prison and made a complete nativity scene, including three camels that seem to be bowing down to the baby Jesus. My children love to gently flop the camels across the table, run their fingers along Joseph’s yarn beard, and feel the wooly coils on the lamb.
As I watch them play, I find myself asking the questions Godly Play has taught me to ponder: I wonder how this little baby is a light to the world, a light that no darkness can overcome?
Stricter prison policy now forbids our brother from crocheting because the hook could be a weapon. Although he has lived nonviolently now for 36 years, he is still a violent offender in the blind eyes of the system. The prison’s fear-based law negates a biblical vision in which he is a new creation and weapons are transformed into plowshares. I think about how his cheerful plush figures enjoy a freedom he does not yet know—the sounds of children’s laughter, the touch of gentle hands, the light of candles.
I do not give our friend’s name because I fear that some readers may immediately want to look him up and magnify the heinous crime he committed when he was a different man. I tell my children his name. I show them his picture in our community dining room. We pray, not only for him and other people on Death Row, but also for the families devastated by the crimes that have left them aching for their loved ones this Christmas.
This Christmas my heart is heavy with the reality of violence and a broken system that seems so far from God’s vision. I wonder what Georgia lawmakers, judges and prison officials learned about God as young children. Was God always distant and punishing?
I wonder what might happen if they were to reach out and touch our friend’s handiwork, the work of redeemed hands that once killed. Might they feel that little shiver of Emmanuel, God with us?