It really didn’t happen that way, you know–shepherds, angels, wise men, sheep, camels, and donkeys, arrayed aroundthe manger with the star overhead. To begin with, once the angels deliveredtheir message to the shepherds, they didn’t dart over to the stable. They wenthome. And by the time the wise men reached Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and Jesuswere in a house (Matthew 2:11).
So how did we end up with the nativity scene? I’ve long assumed it was pure sloppiness. Caught up in tradition, people didn’t care how it really happened.
But I’ve changed my mind. I now believe the manger scene captures the essence of the Christmas story in a way that a historically accurate picture might not.
Look again. There’s Mary, probably a teenage mom. Joseph, a middle-class craftsman. Shepherds, dirty, smelly, considered untrustworthy riffraff. And theMagi–educated, exotic, wealthy.
Poor, middle class, wealthy. And what brought them together? The focal point of that scene–the baby in the manger. People who ordinarily have little to do with one another come together not because of any mutual attraction, but because of the Christchild. In his birth, Jesus gave birth to a highly improbable community.
It was a pregnant sign of things to
come. When Jesus began his ministry, who followed him? The devout ones, of
course, like Andrew and Nathanael. But also tax collectors despised for collaborating
with the hated Roman oppressors as well as their nasty habit of extortion. Plus
prostitutes, lepers, the demon-afflicted—outcasts all. Jesus earned–and wore
with honor–the badge, intended as an insult, “friend of tax collectors
and sinners.” Yet his traveling company also included women of sufficient
means that they could financially support Jesus and the Twelve.
These Twelve included not only Matthew, a collaborator with the Romans, but also Simon the Zealot, pledged to their violent overthrow. Rich and poor, respected and despised, radical left and ultra-right, all came together, not because of any mutual attraction, but because of Jesus.
The invitation to follow Jesus today is still an invitation to join a unique community. John the Evangelist says he is writing “that you may share with us in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3, REV). The evangelistic invitation is an invitation to share a common life with Jesus, with the Father, and with the family of God.
We cannot join this family without acquiring a host of siblings. Dancing charismatics and liturgical Lutherans, conservatives and liberals, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated, –we are all adopted into the family.
This, I suspect, is why we find the nativity scene so compelling. Not only does it draw together the various strands of the Christmas narrative; it draws together varied humanity.
This Christmas, may this scene remind us to celebrate not only the baby in the manger, but also the gift of being embraced by–and the call to embrace–this most unlikely community.