An Astronaut, Darth Vader, and Gigantic Weebles in a Nativity?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted December 21, 2020

Visitors to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the Roman Catholic Church’s world headquarters on Rome’s Tiber River, were greeted with a rather unusual Nativity display.

Instead of traditional figures depicting Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, and the shepherds who came to the manger, tourists saw—well, here’s how The New York Times described it: “The three wise men, life-size and cylindrical, looked as if constructed from ceramic oil drums. Joseph and Mary, likewise torpedo-shaped, seemed like enormous, Bible-themed Weebles. Two enigmatic, totemic figures stood in the middle of the platform. One held a shield and a decorative spear and had for a head what appeared to be an overturned caldron, carved like an angry Halloween Jack-O-Lantern. The other wore an astronaut’s helmet and held the cratered moon in its hands.”

The Nativity scene was donated by artisans from Castelli, an Italian town known for its ceramics. Created in the 1960s and 1970s, these ceramic pieces are part of a larger collection that have, over the years, been previously displayed—even at Jerusalem. An astronaut was included to memorialize one of humanity’s greatest achievements of that decade: the moon landing in 1969. This kind of contemporary addition is not uncommon for the Vatican, whose past Nativities have included anything from nautical to nude depictions.

So, how have viewers perceived these unique models?


“I Thought of Bowling Pins”

“It made me think of bowling pins, with baby Jesus as a ball,” one young Roman said in a video on the newspaper’s website. “It is a very strange Nativity scene. Hard to believe they did it,” she added.

Another resident commented, “It is modern. … Some people like it, other people don’t. … I don’t like it.”

In an article for Britain’s Catholic Herald, Joe Grabowski, a Catholic writer in the Washington, D.C. area, declared, “It is not what we expected, and not what most of us want. This year’s Vatican creche has been laughed at and ridiculed for looking like a science fiction story or children’s toys. One figure was often described as looking like Darth Vader, though to me he looks more like a Sontaran from Doctor Who. More excitable people called it demonic, pagan, and idolatrous.”

Writing in America, a news magazine published by the Jesuit order, Colleen Dulle quotes Catholic scholar and art critic Elizabeth Lev, who said, “The Catholic Church has an incredible tradition of beauty, and yet, after a year of difficulty, we’ve put up something that makes people mock Jesus.”

Lev, who admitted to cracking wise about the display herself, said such ridicule was an issue: “The problem is, there is a universal outpouring of mockery. They’re making fun of the Holy Family; people are vying with each other to come up with the funnier name.”

Author Tommy Tighe “reveled in the ‘weirdness’ of the scene” before tweeting about “hanging images of Jesus and Mary in spacesuits around his house.”

In the Times account, the last word went to 52-year-old Cristina Massari, a Rome tour guide, who found something relatable in it. “It’s a Nativity scene that has had problems, like we’ve all had a lousy year,” Massari told the newspaper. “If it made it, we can.”


Let Us Adore … This?

Yet the question remains: Is this scene the optimal presentation of Christ’s birth?

Pope Francis thinks so, taking to Twitter on December 19: “The Christmas tree and the Nativity scene are signs of hope, especially in this difficult time. Let us be sure we do not stop at the sign, but get to the meaning, that is, to Jesus, to the love of God that He revealed to us, the infinite goodness that he made shine on the world.”

But how do we get to Jesus if the sign takes us off the beaten path and down a rabbit hole, filled with pop culture and social commentary? What if the sign changes our perception of Jesus, and He becomes just another ceramic creature of our own making? What if we begin to “adore” that instead of the God of the Bible?

In the Bible, it is not the inanimate object that represents the sign, but the Word of God come to pass: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This prophecy was fulfilled by Christ Jesus. That is the truth, no matter how people decide to depict it.

Pastor Doug Batchelor, in a sermon called “The Christian and Christmas,” counsels us to keep our focus on this truth: “Make sure that Jesus doesn’t get a tip and everybody else gets lavished. Because it’s really about the baby that God sent.” This baby is the Savior, God the Son who was sent by God the Father to redeem humanity from the curse of sin.

Getting to know the living Jesus—not the ones made of terracotta or sand or wood or stone—is the real and applicable hope in life. Learn more about this hope in “Get to Know Jesus,” our free online Bible study lesson.

And if you want to see how that hope can transform your life, check out “Changed Lives,” our 2021 daily devotional book filled with compelling, true stories of what the babe of Bethlehem did for people of every background and situation.

The figure of the baby Jesus in the Vatican’s Nativity remains veiled, awaiting its revealing on Christmas Eve. But while “Darth Vader” remains center stage at the Vatican, Christ Jesus can be on the throne of your heart. Invite Him in today!

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.
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