Nativity scene

Call the police: Baby Jesus has been stolen — and The New York Times has a compelling story about it

Call the police: Baby Jesus has been stolen — and The New York Times has a compelling story about it

I’m in Texas at my Mom and Dad’s house as I type this — about to enjoy a festive Christmas Eve breakfast with chocolate syrup and pancakes, white gravy and biscuits, sausage, bacon and assorted other fixings.

My wife, two of my children, my brother, sister, my sister-in-law and various nephews and a niece will join me in line as we start our Christmas celebration by eating way too much.

I mention the above mainly because it’s all I can think about at the moment, but also because it may help explain why this post will be pretty quick and to the point.

I’ve got somewhere else to be, don’t you know.

Seriously, I want to highlight two New York Times stories real briefly this morning — both about nativity scenes, but one a much more compelling read than the other.

The first story was featured on Sunday’s front page with the headline “Cameras, Bolts and an Elusive Goal: To Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”

It’s a creative, timely piece about a national trend of baby Jesus being swiped from Nativity scenes nationally, and the dateline — the setting for the story — is pure brilliance:

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Away in a manger on Bethlehem’s public square, a woman approached a statue of the baby Jesus one dark, December night. Then she stole it.

The theft, from a Nativity scene outside City Hall, raised alarm in this eastern Pennsylvania city that shares a name with the real Jesus Christ’s birthplace.

When the missing baby Jesus was found, it had been damaged, and Bethlehem’s police chief had to glue its leg back on. Then the city took action, positioning a concealed security camera exclusively on baby Jesus and assigning police officers to monitor the footage. In the two years since, the statue has been left at peace, asleep on the hay as the camera, nicknamed the “Jesus cam” by some residents, rolls.

“If anybody looks real close, they’ll see a crack in his leg,” said Lynn Cunningham, a leader of the local chamber of commerce.

Such manger larceny, in glaring violation of the Eighth Commandment, is also part of a sad national trend. This year, thieves have raided Nativity scenes in Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota and plenty of other places, and made off with Jesus figurines (and sometimes Mary and a donkey, too).

In terms of clever writing, there are nice touches throughout. As for religion, the reporter doesn’t neglect it, including lines such as this:

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Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

Struggling to keep olive-wood traditions alive in Bethlehem (But why the big crisis?)

At two very different points in my life, I had a chance to talk with Christians in Bethlehem, while looking over some of the wood-carvings and other gifts in their shops.

That first visit was at Christmas in 1972, when I was a Baylor University freshman in a touring choir. The second was in 2000, when I was in Israel and Jordan at a conference on religion-news trends -- linked to Pope John Paul II and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There were major changes between those visits. There have been more changes since then. But the olive trees remain and artists still turn the wood into crosses, Nativity sets, rosaries and other gifts that pilgrims and tourists take home as symbols of their visits. There's an olive-wood cross (simple and Protestant) from 1972 hanging next to my computer as I write this. My other olive-wood Jerusalem cross? It's in my family's Orthodox altar corner. Turn, turn, turn.

All of this is to say that I appreciated the Religion News Service feature focusing on the many current issues and challenges that swirl around the Christians of the West Bank. The headline: "In Christ’s birthplace, olive wood artisans carry on a Holy Land tradition."

Yes, the Christians (and some Muslim artists) carry on. But trends in the Middle East keep making the lives of Christians more difficult and even dangerous. What is causing so much pain and stress? Hold that thought. There is much to praise in this RNS piece, but there is one crucial passage that I found rather stunning.

Let's start with the overture and the family at the heart of the story:

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (RNS) -- Thirty years ago Bassem Giacaman, whose large extended family has lived in this town for generations, immigrated to New Zealand with his parents and siblings in search of a life far away from the turmoil of the Middle East.
They left behind a small shop and olive wood factory, one of a few dozen olive wood enterprises in and around Bethlehem, which Christians around the world revere as the birthplace of Jesus.
Most of these businesses are owned by Christian families that have been carving religious items such as crosses, rosaries and Nativity scenes for nearly two millennia.

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Perfectly valid (even if rather bizarre) Christmas wars stories in Texas and South Florida

Perfectly valid (even if rather bizarre) Christmas wars stories in Texas and South Florida

Not all Christmas wars stories are created equal.

The most important ones have something to do with religious believers of all kinds attempting to carve out some space in what is usually called the "public square." We're talking about government or business controlled environments ranging from public schools to shopping malls, from county court house lawns to public parks.

In other words, we're talking about battles over what the Peanuts character Linus can or cannot say in a public-school holiday musical or in a poster about such an event. Here is a case in point, care of The Washington Post, complete with the perfectly normal term religious liberty being wrapped in scare quotes. You know the drill. Let's start with Charlie Brown asking, "Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus, his thumb-sucking and blanket-toting best friend, speaks up.
“Sure, Charlie Brown,” he says. “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”
Then the character recites a lengthy Bible passage, from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when angels descend upon the flock-tending shepherds to announce the birth of baby Jesus.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord,” Linus says. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
It is that quote, extracted from the special’s most overtly Christian scene, that has thrust a Texas middle school nurse’s aide, the school district she works for and the state attorney general into a very public -- and unseasonably bitter -- debate over what “religious liberty” means inside the walls of the state’s public schools.

You can almost write the rest of this story yourself, can't you? 

The key, this time, is that the story actually includes large chunks of material about some of the laws that frame this debate, such as the Merry Christmas Law in Texas that was passed to clarify some U.S. Supreme Court material on such matters.

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An Advent miracle? Check the fine details in the baby in a Queens manger story

An Advent miracle? Check the fine details in the baby in a Queens manger story

Why a purple towel?

If you have followed the news online in the past day or so, you have probably seen reports about the newborn baby that was left -- umbilical chord still attached -- in a manger scene inside a church in Queens.

It has been interesting to follow the coverage as it developed, with a strong burst of holiday sentiment from news producers everywhere who have been quick to proclaim, "It's a Christmas miracle!"

Ah, but there are some intriguing fine details in this story that are worth pondering. Let's start with an early Reuters report, as circulated by Religion News Service. This is pretty much the whole story:

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A newborn with his umbilical cord still attached was found lying in a manger at a New York church, police said on Tuesday.
At Holy Child Jesus Church in the borough of Queens on Monday, the custodian found the crying infant wrapped in towels in the indoor nativity scene he had set up just before his lunch break, a New York police spokesman said.
Father Christopher Ryan Heanue, one of the priests at the church, said he and others placed a clean towel around the baby while waiting for paramedics to show up.
“The beautiful thing is that this woman found in this church -- which is supposed to be a home for those in need -- this home for her child,” Heanue said, referring to the person he assumes left the baby there.

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