The church down the street has finally dismantled its nativity display. The three lighted figures are unplugged and packed up. Plastic Jesus has been put away for another year.
If only that were true.
I have a bit of history with plastic Jesus. I grew up in a Catholic family. We had a plastic Jesus statue on the dashboard of the red station wagon – there was a magnet in the base that made it stick to the metal. (Yeah, they used actual metal in cars back then.) The neighbors had a plastic Mary statue in their front yard.
Some years ago, I had another encounter with plastic Jesus. It was Christmas eve. I’d just stopped at the butcher shop to pick up the holiday ham. On my way home, I was stopped at a traffic light. A house on the corner at the intersection had life-size replicas of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the front lawn as part of a gaudy holiday display.
I looked over and thought: What if it’s all plastic? You know – religion, God, all of it. What if it’s all fake?
At the time, there were daily revelations about the horrific things that so many Catholic priests had done to so many children and how bishops had enabled them by covering it up. It made you want to throw up.
And that’s not all.
Fundamentalists were raging against gay people and Muslim people and anybody who had different beliefs about anything. Prosperity preachers dressed like Wall Street investors were raising money to buy helicopters and planes and expand their religious turf, all in the name of sweet Jesus – oh, and please buy my book and give me an amen. Theologians were devising twisted justifications for starting wars and killing whoever some politicians deemed as an enemy at the moment.
Of course, adherents of other religions were declaring holy wars on those who saw things differently, too. It was pretty much all the same thing, really.
Such a twisted, disgusting mess.
I sat at the red light and thought: Maybe the atheists are right. Maybe religion is nothing more than a self-made justification for our own hatred and selfishness. Maybe there is no God.
Maybe it’s all as plastic as that Jesus in the manger over there.
The thought depressed me, but I figured that I needed to consider it. (It didn’t make for a very merry Christmas, I’ll tell you that!) It wasn’t too long, though, before I had another thought: Maybe there is a God who is so much bigger than all of this other stuff and shouldn’t be confused with it.
So I said a prayer that amounted to: If you do exist, show me what this is all about. I started to differentiate between the plastic and the real. To recognize that God is beyond our words and our religions and our understanding, but within our love and our compassion and our forgiveness.
And while we can’t truly comprehend God, we can encounter God when we care for the needy, help the hurting to heal, see the divine in our differences, and treat everyone as an equally beloved child of the same loving creator.
Each year when I see a nativity scene, I’m reminded of my red-light encounter with plastic Jesus on that Christmas eve. Also, I’m reminded how plastic Jesus remains very popular – we see him on display in many ways every day:
— People judging and condemning in the name of someone who admonished us to never judge.
— People screaming about the sliver of imperfection in someone else while ignoring the enormous plank of the same stuff inside themselves.
— People deciding that instead of transforming our enemies by loving them, we should get more guns and be on the ready to shoot them.
— People washing their hands of the needy.
— People perpetuating injustice by being indifferent to it.
— People insisting that God is pleased with them and those exactly like them, but no one else.
Plastic Jesus is very popular, and it’s not surprising. After all, he’s a very convenient prop.
Plastic Jesus doesn’t weigh much because he’s empty inside -– no heart, only a light bulb. That means you can easily pick him up and move him to any position you choose. And when it suits your purposes, you can move him to a different position. Again and again.
We get to decide where he goes, and we like controlling him that way.
We overlook the fact that plastic Jesus isn’t a real thing. The real thing wants to move us, not the other way around. Wants all of those radical words about love to be taken seriously. Wants to stay out year-round and live not on front lawns but in hearts.
Wants us to put the plastic stuff away.