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Nativity as Art: When Jesus’ Birth Scene Is Used to Make Statements

nativity scene

Many opinions have been shared about a United Methodist Church in California’s attempt at a statement via the church’s nativity scene. Claremont UMC’s nativity features Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus separated in individual cells surrounded by chain-link fence and barbed wire. The scene serves as a reminder of migrant families being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. While the church’s nativity is provocative, it’s certainly not the first time a nativity has been used in an artistic way to provide social commentary. 

“A nativity is the theological equivalent to public art, and the role of public art has always been to offer awareness,” Rev. Karen Clark Ristine of the Claremont, California church told the Washington Post. “Jesus taught us kindness and mercy and the radical welcome of all people,” she said. Rev. Ristine denies the scene was devised to make a political statement, although many are critical of the nativity because they believe it mixes politics and the church in an unpalatable way. 

On a plaque in front of the nativity, the church offers an explanation for what they are attempting to convey through the work of art:

In a time in our country when refugee families seek asylum at our borders and are unwillingly separated from one another, we consider the most well-known refugee family the world, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Holy Family.

Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee with their young son from Nazareth to Egypt to escape King Herod, a tyrant. They feared persecution and death. 

What if this family sought refuge in our country today?

Imagine Joseph and Mary separated at the border and Jesus, no older than two, taken from his mother and placed behind the fences of a Border Patrol detention center as more than 5,500 children have been the past three years.

Jesus grew up to teach us kindness and mercy and a radical welcome of all people.

He said: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” – Matthew 25:35

In the Claremont United Methodist Church nativity scene this Christmas, the Holy Family takes the place of thousands of nameless families separated at our borders.

Inside the church, you will see this same family reunited, the Holy Family together, in a nativity that joins the angels in singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to all.” – Luke 2:14

Other Statement-Making Nativity Scenes

Claremont UMC’s nativity certainly does not represent the first time the nativity has been imagined in a fresh way. 

St. Susanna Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts made headlines last year for their nativity featuring baby Jesus in a cage. Off to the side, the three wise men are barred from reaching the Messiah by a border wall represented by a metal barrier. The statement being made here was clearly a protest of the way asylum-seekers are being treated at the U.S.-Mexico border. The year before that, St. Susanna protested the lack of action taken by politicians and other leaders on the rising problem of gun violence. This nativity featured the holy family intact, but included the names and death tolls of 16 mass shootings that had taken place in the U.S. from 1999 to 2017. 

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Megan Briggs is a writer and editor for churchleaders.com. Her experience in ministry, an extensive amount of which was garnered overseas, gives her a unique perspective on the global church. She has the longsuffering and altruistic nature of foreign friends and missionaries to humbly thank for this experience. Megan is passionate about seeking and proclaiming the truth. When she’s not writing, Megan likes to explore God’s magnificent creation.