In a quiet corner of the campus at a Catholic university near where I live, there's a crèche tucked up against a shallow horseshoe arc of cedar trees. Although I'm not Catholic, or even Christian, I look forward to its appearance on the lawn every winter. The figures are like old friends, returning faithfully every year to the same spot for a reunion. And I join them on a December evening to take time to reflect on what is really behind this symbol of the season.
The figures in this crèche are of white plaster, their advanced age obvious from the cracks and broken parts. The shepherd wears a cracked robe, and a donkey's ear is held on by clear tape.
But what really amuses me is that it's out of scale – baby Jesus is more than half the size of the kneeling Mary. To put the set together, the university has over the years combined several sets of figures to come up with the whole crowd.
The sheep are only as large as a domestic cat, and the donkey and cow loom over them like mastiffs over a dachshund. The stable is much too small to shelter both the holy family and the solicitous animals.
Last year to my delight, the crèche scene appeared again right on schedule. When I passed by on a night walk, it was lit by two overhead floodlights on a telephone pole.
The cow had the best view and was making eye contact with baby Jesus. The donkey and sheep vied to see who would get the better look into the cradle.
The human figures were arranged out from the manger cradle like a V of migrating geese. There was Mary, kneeling at the head of the V on the left, looking with rapture at her baby. But there were a lot of animals in front of her and her gaze was misdirected.
On the right side of the V were more sheep, a shepherd, and wise men, with a camel bringing up the rear. The kneeling shepherd and wise men didn't peer at Jesus, but instead looked at the frozen ground.
I looked to the right of Mary, expecting Joseph and saw a kneeling man with a lantern. Since Joseph doesn't usually wear a turban or carry a lantern, I searched around me.
There, at the end of the line of well-wishers was Joseph looking raptly at the ice-crinkled grass with his hand over his heart.
Whatever amusing order my plaster friends appear in, I'm always anxious to see the new configuration.
The crèche reminds me of Jesus' compassion, which resonates with my Buddhist sympathies. I'm convinced that had Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha) been alive at the same time (instead of roughly 500 years apart), they would have found a lot in common: compassion, gratitude, giving of self.
When I was growing up, my favorite Christmas carol was the 12th-century French song "The Friendly Beasts," in which all the farm animals get to shout out about what they did or sacrificed for Jesus that first night.
In my parent's home, there was a 12-inch-high wooden crèche with real straw and ceramic figures. That crèche disappeared in various moves over the years. But now I get to walk each winter into a more or less (depending on which set they took the figures from) life-size crèche and meditate with my plaster friends on peace and compassion.
It reminds me of this ragtag bunch of us living on earth and trying, trying to get along.