One of the treats of my childhood Christmas Eves was being allowed to help set up our precious stone crib. Each figure was carefully unwrapped from its tissue paper and we pondered carefully where they should go. Funnily enough they always ended up in the same places: Angels on the roof, baby in manger, Mary and Joseph kneeling either side, Ox and Ass behind. That is the point. The story and the pictures do not change.
I still love cribs, but now they seem united in their ability to get in the way. Our crib at home is in a 3-foot-high box and at present this is blocking up the hallway. Inside is a 10% scale model of the proposal for Trafalgar Square by the sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp. St Martin’s ran the competition to design a new crib in 2004 after the old one was destroyed in the celebrations for the Rugby World Cup win. Had Sokari’s been commissioned the palm tree would have gone half-way up Nelson’s Column! The impracticality was part of the point.
At St Martin’s the ‘Baby in Stone’ by Mike Chapman blocks the entrance in the middle of the portico. The cold, stark vulnerability of the piece makes it a powerful crib at Christmas. It may seem to be ‘in the way’ but with the church doors open you can look from the stone to the window. It is a journey from incarnation to crucifixion in two works of art.
And so to the crib we bless in the Square today. A glass box to stumble upon on the way to Nelson. Made in Hackney, by the Japanese sculptor Tomoako Suzuki, with figures modelled on a diverse range of members of our Church, it is a crib for all people and for all time.
Getting in the way is the whole point. Our hope is that now and for all time we trip across the crib. What is portrayed is not the grand arrival of the King of Kings but of the word made flesh, living among us as a refugee and knowing the true frailty of those he came to save. And that is all people not least those we seek to help today with the Christmas Appeal. The cribs may be beautiful, but they should be awkward too. If Christmas is to mean anything then the crib must get in the way of everything else.