God in the Grotesque: a Nativity Scene

God in the Grotesque: a Nativity Scene December 20, 2017


by guest writer Marybeth Bishop

“Vast and wide is the span of the sea, with its creeping things past counting, living things great and small. The ships are moving there, and Leviathan you made to play with.” ~Psalm 104:25-26


In mid-September I decided to tackle the backyard cleanup in preparation for my oldest daughter’s wedding the following month. In retrospect this was complete folly, since I’d done little upkeep of our property for several years. I made the mistake of trying to defeat the LFs first—spindly vines that grow along our fence line, with nearly invisible needle-thin spikes growing along every millimeter of stem and branch, leaving only the leaves smooth and benign-looking. The needles are so strong and straight that they penetrate every type of gardening glove I have, and the resulting skin prick is felt more in the gut than on the surface. After several neighbors were unable to identify the beasts, I dubbed them the Little Fuckers. (Yet another reason I was not Eve.) I trudged along, carefully snipping them down, until I came upon their origin—a 3-inch thick version that was predictably dubbed the MF.

After 30 minutes spent hacking down the MF I felt invulnerable, and my bravado tricked me into taking on the 2-year-old leaf pile. The top layer was fine—dry, new leaves that had blown down during the previous week’s storm. But under that lay a good two feet of damp, decaying detritus. The whole thing was oddly oozy, and the words “lair” and “nest” and “lurk” kept playing in the back of my head. I hadn’t planned on the sheer amount of moisture involved, and my skin rose in goosebumps when the damp seeped unexpectedly through my sweatshirt despite the heat of the afternoon. I breathed the pungent smell of damp decay and my loose hair brushed against the leaves as I bent to scoop another armful for the bag, and I remembered taking an early morning hike years ago in a local park. I’d bent down to tie my shoe in the rain, and straightened to find a snail crawling up the end of my hair. I’d have loved the company of a snail this day, in my own yard, but instead the corner of my eye caught movement from the depth of the pile. I straightened quickly and stood still and quiet, staring at the spot where the shadows were shifting. I only saw the edge of something, black and scuttling rather than slithering, much larger than I would have liked. All of my skin began to itch and tickle, as if creatures of varying sizes had found their way up my sleeves to entertain me.

I rubbed my arms, hard, to quiet the itching. I tied my hair back in a ponytail and flipped the hood of my sweatshirt up. I may have whispered, “I am not your nest” out loud. And as I grabbed the rake to continue, I saw something that threatened to turn my stomach. Nestled in the leaves was a cluster of gelatinous, shiny, slimy golden eggs. They looked wobbly and horrifying and squirmy, and—beautiful. They nearly glowed in the sunshine, hinting of unknown, alien insects. It was terrifying.

And it felt like God’s love note to me.

My father had died two months previously. It was as expected as a death can be, but I had not anticipated the strange things grief can do. After he died, I had trouble reading anything religious or comforting. I carried around Mary Oliver’s “Thirst” for a few days, a gift from a dear and intuitive friend, as I cried over various stanzas. Beyond that I could only find solace in horror novels. It hadn’t struck me as odd since I’ve always been a fan of the genre, but I suppose it’s nontraditional to read The Graveyard Apartment or Black Mad Wheel while mourning.

Now that I stopped to reflect, I realized that horror is my comfort food. It’s a bit like a travel magazine, with destinations spiritual rather than geographical. Much as someone may read about the salt flats in Bolivia or the golden falls in Iceland to escape their drab cramped-feeling apartment, I needed to read about the fantastic and uncanny and supernatural to escape my own tiny, claustrophobic, melancholy soul. I couldn’t finish Holy Desperation despite being a fan of Heather King, yet I read several Josh Malerman novels in one sitting. Mass was painful and often made me cry, while I attempted to hide the tears in temporarily snail-free hair. So God met me there, in the filthy rotting leaf pile teeming with creepy life. “Here I AM. Beauty in the rot. I’ll sit here with you, too.”

The wedding was beautiful, and healing. (We hired a landscaper to finish the yard.) As months have passed the ground under my feet has solidified, though I still unexpectedly step in sinkholes of grief up to my neck that can derail me for days. Last week the kids and I set out the nativity scene, and the clean, beautiful, glittering statues seemed frozen and untouchable. I felt a lack and a longing that threatened to open another sinkhole, when the December issue of Give Us This Day delivered the Psalm at the top like a gift. I’ve long been a fan of kraken, and here was God, Creator of the Universe, playing with a kraken like a puppy. Perhaps God also finds beauty in the monstrous.

I looked again at the pristine scene on our mantel, and tried to picture what the actual scene was like before we slapped varnish on it to make it more palatable. There must have been a waft of old hay and donkey poop to the swaddling clothes. Whatever gorgeous and skillful Mediterranean twist Mary had in her hair at the start of the journey must surely have escaped in wisps around her sweat-stained face with every labor push. I can’t imagine that Joseph helped deliver the Son of Man to Earth unaided without at least a touch of heartburn. And yet there was Emmanuel, God-With-Us, just like in the wobbly golden insect eggs, in the playfully sinuous tentacles of a kraken, in the grief and loneliness in my leaf-pile-nest of a heart.



image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Kraken!_(33641594895).jpg

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