The Nativity at the Vatican in Rome is causing a bit of head-scratching this year.
There’s a naked man — a beefy, ripped naked man — in the scene, and some people complain that he’s pulling attention away from Baby Jesus.
In fact, the whole scene is a little, uh, out there for some faithful who have been arguing about it on social media since it was unveiled earlier this month.
It looks like a “medieval ER,” tweeted one Vatican watcher.
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“Is this Christmas or the Apocalypse,” wondered another.
The centerpiece of the Vatican’s Christmas decorations is a towering, 92-foot spruce tree from Poland adorned with ceramic ornaments made by children being treated in Italian hospitals, according to a report in the The Arlington Catholic Herald in Virginia.
The Nativity scene was donated by the Benedictine Abbey of Montevergine in southern Italy. It features 20 terracotta figures, some as tall as 6 feet, posed over an 860-square-foot scene and created in 18th century Neapolitan style, the Herald reports.
The display depicts seven corporal works of mercy. In one vignette, a dead man is being buried, in another a prisoner is visited. The naked man is being clothed.
The representation of Jesus’ birth is inspired by works of mercy and is a reminder “that Jesus told us: ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you,” Pope Francis said earlier this month in introducing the scene and thanking those who worked on it.
But some people have a problem with the naked man.
“A naked man steals the show in the Vatican’s new nativity scene rendition,” declared Veritas Vincit International, a self-described “End Times” blog.
“Most people’s eyes would probably be led first and attracted to the ‘unique’ sight of a naked man prominently featured in the official nativity scene of the Vatican – set right at the forefront of the giant Christmas tree,” the blog insists.
Some of the harshest critics have dubbed it “The Frankie Horror Picture Show.”
The Rev. Dwight Longenecker, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C., is no fan, either, but for theological reasons.
“Far be it from me to join the Catholic prudes who are being negative about the Vatican nativity scene,” the priest writes on his blog.
“People are grumbling about the naked man who is being clothed as an act of mercy. Some are also creeped out by the dead person being prepared for burial because it looks like a scene from a horror film.”
He doesn’t mind the “nudity and gore,” he writes. “I sort of mind that it is bad art — schmaltzy and poorly executed. The figures are stilted and awkward. It looks like one of those tableaus in a third rate wax museum. You could say, ‘C’mon. This is Catholicism. We’re used to kitsch.’ OK, but the Vatican should do better.”
His real complaint? He argues that a “Nativity scene is not a tableau of the corporal works of mercy. The Vatican Nativity worries me because it is placing good works front and center rather than the incarnation.
“In fact, the good works in the nativity scene swamp the Nativity – over ride the Nativity and make it take second place. The good works are literally front and center. The nativity of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary is in the background.”
Taking note of the controversy — someone snarked that the naked man looks like his clothes were stolen at the gym — Mark Brumley in The Catholic World Report took the “art for art’s sake” stance.
“I like to think of him as representing the potential for a new ‘muscular Christianity,’” Brumley wrote while asking his fellow Catholics to stop with the name-calling over the controversy.
“It seems to me that certain advocates and critics can help the conversation if they focused less on their opponents and more on the arguments, for and against, this or that aspect of the art in question,” Brumley wrote.
“But perhaps that is too much to expect of certain Catholics in social media these days, even in this time of Advent.”