A Dedham parish’s Nativity scene puts a stark spotlight on climate change

"Our attempt at the Nativity is to show that there is hurt in the world and how can we heal this world that we see today."

This year’s Nativity scene at Saint Susanna Parish in Dedham. —Saint Susanna Parish

The question hangs above a fraught scene.

Part of the phrase draws from John 3:16, with a twist: “‘God so loved the world…’ will we?” it reads.

Below, underneath the gaze of an angel, Mary and Joseph keep watch of the newborn Jesus in their familiar manger.

But all around the family, the shepherds and their flock, the wisemen and their camels are nearly drowning. Some, though not all, of the animals are already beneath the surface of the rising tide.

While the waves may seem out of place in the story immortalized in scripture, Father Stephen Josoma, pastor of Saint Susanna Parish in Dedham, sees it as the harsh world — one grappling with the impact of climate change — that greets Jesus Christ this holiday season.

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“We just try to depict the current picture of reality of what he’s entering into or what we’re welcoming him into,” Josoma told Boston.com Tuesday.

For a third year, Josoma’s parish has offered its own tweak to the classic Nativity scene in hopes of prompting conversation and action about the current state of the world.

Last year, passersby saw a cage around the baby Jesus and a fence splitting the humble shelter in half — an interpretation intended to draw attention to immigration policies and the treatment of people crossing the Mexican border into the United States.

Before that, in 2017, blue-and-white signs posted behind the manger displayed the number of victims in 16 mass shootings dating back to Columbine High School, now some 20 years ago.

“I’m not sure that that many people are aware that the way that we live is the cause of a lot of suffering in the world. We don’t connect the dots to that,” Josoma said. “Our attempt at the Nativity is to show that there is hurt in the world and how can we heal this world that we see today by the way that we treat each other, by the way that we treat the world around us.”

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After all, Pope Francis has made his own call for action, Josoma notes.

In 2015, the pope published Laudato si’, an encyclical in which he called on leaders around the world to take action to curb climate change, such as through cutting carbon emissions in the coming years.

“I urgently appeal … for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet,” he wrote. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

Last week, the pope lamented to the U.N. Climate Change Conference summit in Madrid that political will to take on those challenges is lacking.

In Dedham, Saint Susanna Parish has actively engaged in finding ways to raise awareness and spark new perspectives on climate issues this year, according to Josoma.

During Lent, parishioners signed pledges to refrain from using plastic “as much as they could,” he said. From there, several church groups have been working to get the word out.

When it came time for this year’s Nativity to rise, the church considered perhaps forgoing another interpretation, according to Josoma.

But, he noted, last year’s scene generated widespread media coverage, even without the church’s effort.

“We thought if we had something to say about an important issue it would almost be irresponsible not to say something,” he said. “It’s a little Nativity but it seems to have a worldwide audience so to speak.”

This year’s display went up on Saturday.

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“It’s really just a question of this is a wonderful place we get to call home and we know it’s being tremendously hurt by our own activities … and how do we take care of that?

He added, “It’s at our door and we just don’t — it’s crazy.”

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