This is a nativity scene like none other. Claremont United Methodist Church, in Southern California, sits just a mile or so from where I grew up. But I never saw a Christmas scene like this one. Nativity scenes began in 1223 with St. Francis of Assisi. In an effort to help an illiterate and poor population experience the poverty and fragility of Christ’s birth, St. Francis staged a live nativity scene outside Assisi. People flocked to it, finding it a moving aid to their faith. These scenes have been part of Christmas celebrations now for eight centuries. They’ve been created with every cultural adaptation imaginable. But I don’t know that there’s any precedent for the one created by artist John Zachary, in Claremont, California. In a video from CNN, at this link: John Zachary describes what he has done.
While most scripture scholars admit the details of the birth of Jesus are highly non-historical, their symbolism matters a great deal to people of faith. Jesus’ birth is only discussed in two of the four gospels. It’s depicted as a dangerous, precarious birth: a homeless couple, a tyrant, Herod, planning to kill every baby boy he can find to reverse a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Jesus, in the context of the story, is born in a threatening, violent time. This is precisely what artist John Zachary wanted to show. He wanted to use an image we would all recognize– the nativity scene– and a modern image we’d all know too– the bleeding, hooded Trayvon Martin, killed in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012 by George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of the murder last year.
Trayvon Martin’s murder comes with a history too. America’s history of slavery, and the lynching, and murdering of black men, often without consequence or justice, is sad and indisputable. Trayvon Martin, a seventeen year-old, was murdered on February 26, 2012 while walking to his mother’s home, from a trip to a 7-11 to get Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, followed him and shot him during a confrontation no one will ever fully understand. But Trayvon Martin’s killing comes as part of American history, with echoes of Emmett Till and many others.
Into the history of nativity scenes and the history of violence against African American men, comes an artist who wants to move us. John Zachary hopes we will look at this nativity scene and — at first — see what we expect to see: a stable, hay, angels, wooden cutouts of Mary, Joseph, a cradle. But something obstructs– an image of the hooded Trayvon Martin, leaning forward, bleeding to death. Below the scene are the words from the Prophet Isaiah, foretelling the Messiah’s birth: “A child is born. A son is given.” This is a powerful and provocative scene.
This dramatic nativity scene also comes to us layered with the suffering of mothers. We know that Mary, who according to the stories, gave birth to Jesus in a manger, would later stand stunned at the foot of the cross. We also know countless American mothers who have mourned their sons, husbands, and daughters, fallen victims of gun violence. Think Mamie Till, Sabrina Fulton, Coretta Scott King, the mothers of Newtown. This nativity scene knits all that suffering together in ways that can draw us in, if we take the time to be drawn in.
Some will be angry at a “sacred” image defaced with a modern, political message. Some will be annoyed that their safe sense of a snowy, gentle Christmas has been shattered. Yet this is precisely what art can do for us. It can shock us, move us, cause us to re-think, re-imagine, and thus, see things anew.
I hope people will take time to consider what this scene has to offer. I hope we will not just fall quickly into our first reactions to it. Let art do what only it can do– let it change us — if we can give it a chance.
Photo above by: Reuters, David McNew
Hands photo: Fox LA