Baby Jesus has a grubby face. I supposed I should have expected it. I did manage to get the crayon off his head, but even with repeated washing and determined scrubbing with alcohol, he has the unmistakable marks of the many hands through which he has passed over the years. He doesn’t seem to mind.
The year I decided I wanted to send Baby Jesus home with folks during Advent, I knew I wanted a doll that looked like a newborn. There were a number of doll candidates in the church nursery, but none of them seemed quite right. I began looking online for something that might look a bit more like a baby, and less like a Cabbage Patch doll or GI Joe. I had no idea there would be so many choices. This brilliant idea had, unfortunately, hit me in mid-November, rather than August, so there were two important factors in making a choice—how soon it could be delivered, and how much money I was willing to spend. As tempting as it was to get an anatomically correct baby Jesus, I opted for a gender-neutral doll, and the assurance that it could be delivered within three days. I was all set.
On the first Sunday of Advent, I introduced the congregation to Baby Jesus. I invited people to volunteer to take him home for the week. The following Sunday, they were to bring Baby Jesus back to church and share the story of what the week had been like. They could take pictures, write up a little report, or just share some of their experiences.
A lot of parents and grandparents were familiar with the Flat Stanley paper doll that many schools use to encourage literacy. For those who are not familiar with it, “Flat Stanley” was originally a children’s book called Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures by Jeff Brown. It is about a boy who mails himself to a friend, so they could have adventures together. A third grade teacher from London, Ontario, named Dale Hubert, took the book, and created a program to help his students get excited about reading and writing. The program he started in 1995 is now used world-wide to encourage literacy. A child colors a paper version the book character, and then sends him off to friends, relatives, or even famous people to have adventures, and then be returned to the student with pictures and a written report. So, I figured, if folks were game to have adventures with Flat Stanley, taking home Baby Jesus wouldn’t be that much more of a stretch! At least I hoped so.
Even so, I wasn’t at all sure that this idea was going to fly. There were a number of possible scenarios that would mean my idea had flopped: I might not see Jesus again until after Christmas; Jesus might be left under some child’s bed to preach to the dust bunnies; or (horrors!) no one might volunteer to take him home!
I was totally relieved when Sara, a young mom with two sons, volunteered to take Jesus home the first week. After that, there was someone willing to take Jesus home throughout Advent, and on to Epiphany. One teenager took Jesus to High School with her. He went to Homeroom, got to see what a locker looked like, and apparently took long naps in the afternoons. A retired couple were surprisingly inventive. Jesus must have been exhausted by the end of the week: they played cards with friends; went on a horse and buggy ride; sledded with the grandkids (He fell off a few times, but never complained); and spent the evenings sitting reading beside the fire with his hosts. The reports, as they came in on Sundays, were greeted with great appreciation by the entire congregation. It was just delightful. The conversations continued past the official hour of worship, through coffee hour and into the week, as many folks considered what it would be like to have Jesus in our homes—the infant or the man. We might never have gotten there, without the help of a lifelike(ish*) baby doll.
My experiment would not have worked in every church I have served over the years. In fact, I tried doing it again a few years later, and it just didn’t take off in the same way as it did that first year. There are no guarantees when you are trying to catch the winds of the Spirit. But even if the response of the entire congregation had not been as effusive that first time, the risk would have been totally worth it, if only for the week that Sara and her boys took Baby Jesus home.
Baby Jesus, like the well-loved Rabbit who lived in the nursery in the beloved book, The Velveteen Rabbit, became real—grubby face and all. Sara hadn’t shared the entire story on the Sunday they returned Baby Jesus from his week in their home. It was a few days later, as we sat talking over a cup of coffee, that she explained how moved she had been by the whole experience. Sara hadn’t known what to expect from her two active boys. But from the moment they brought him home, things changed. They played with Jesus, shared their toys with Jesus, took him to the dinner table, wrapped him up in a blanket and took turns taking him to bed with them. Sara read them the Bible stories about Jesus, and as they sat holding Jesus in their laps, the stories took on a different feeling. They weren’t just stories anymore. Jesus wasn’t just a name in a book anymore. And just what, Beloved of God, could be better than that?
Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus.
*My daughter wasn’t totally convinced that he looked lifelike. But she kept her opinions to herself. She said his expression was a bit creepy. Personally, I don’t see it.