The December night was chilly and a crowd had gathered with anticipation. We had sheep and a donkey and I think a few other animals at a live nativity we performed at our church when I was in high school. In it was a particularly memorable moment, not when the angels spoke to the shepherds nor when the wise men arrived nor baby Jesus’ entrance. No the most memorable moment was when a sheep ran off with a youth holding tightly to the rope. The crowd laughed and had a bit of concern and we youth were aghast and trying to figure out how the show would go on. I can’t even remember which part I played but I do remember the sheep dragging a friend for a few yards.
Among the many Christmas traditions and decorations, the nativity stands as one of my favorites. I love how they remind us of Jesus, God incarnate, as a baby and how they show the people who came to worship Jesus. This is not just in America, in my travels I have found it fascinating to see how each country has different materials and methods of constructing nativities. Every area of the world makes them in their own way. Each one displaying the meaning of Christmas – that Immanuel – God with us – has come to save the world (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).
When you see a nativity scene this Christmas, you can thank St. Francis of Assisi. Well, of course we should thank God for sending Jesus. But, St. Francis made the first nativity or crèche in 1223 AD. That first nativity featured live animals and people. It quickly gained popularity and spread throughout the Roman Catholic world. They featured all the characters of the Christmas story found in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, and even animals.
But who should we include in the nativity? This has been a question I have heard more and more and perhaps you have even heard it.
Should the wise men be put into the nativity with the shepherds? Growing up, of course they all went together. More recently I have learned that many think the wise men came about two years after the shepherds. They were both there but not at the same time. Are our nativities wrong? Should we correct them? I have heard it suggested – both tongue in cheek and more seriously – the wise men should be on a different shelf. How should we think about all this?
Why do people question if the wise men should be there with the shepherds? Well this is because of the story of the wise men as found in the Gospel of Matthew. They show up and ask the king of the land, Herod, where the one born king of the Jews, Jesus, was to be found. Herod wasn’t too keen on having another king so he set out to kill Jesus. Herod had all children two years old and under heinously murdered.
This time frame suggests to some that Jesus would have been about 2 years old when the wise men came calling. But nothing in the text makes this conclusion necessary. Herod could have just been overly cautious. If Herod is anything like me then he is not too keen at identifying the ages of younger children.
How long did Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem, a city they were visiting for a census? They didn’t have a return bus ticket for a specific return date. But would staying 2 years in a place that wasn’t their home be probable? Two years seems like a long time.
Regardless of when the wise men were there, the shepherds were there for opening night of Christ’s life on earth. God, as a proud Father, announced the birth of His Son to the shepherds. They were there for one night only, at least as given by the text. So the likelihood of the shepherds and the wise men being there on the same night doesn’t seem so great.
But does this mean we should separate them in our nativities?
The nativity tells this one story so very beautifully. Though we have four Gospels we have to see them telling the one story of Jesus but with different perspectives or emphases. I think when St. Francis made the first crèche he had the gospel story in mind not just the historicity of one moment. Think of a nativity as a portrait and not a snapshot. It portrays so well the Christmas message of God with us. The nativity demonstrates so well the ‘us’ in God with us.
If you want a Matthew nativity then you should include only the wise men and the shepherds should be on a different shelf and the baby would be a little bigger. If it is a Luke nativity that you desire then perhaps the wise men should be on a different shelf. But if you want a Gospel nativity then they should be together.
But what does the nativity communicate to us? Taking the Matthew and Luke accounts together is good and tells a story about Christ as God and who He came to save. In each account we have two sets of very different people coming to see the baby Jesus (see Chart).
The wise men of Matthew were not Jewish people but Gentiles. Gentiles were kept out of the temple and generally avoided when possible by Jews. The wise men were also rich bringing expensive gifts to Jesus. They traveled from far away to visit Jesus’ homeland. Their title in the text as well as their ability to gain an audience with King Herod suggests they held respected positions. The text of Matthew also tells us that they knew of some prophesy about Christ and knew that the star they saw meant that the king of the Jews had been born.
The shepherds of Luke are quite different from the wise men. They were Jewish and thus the very people to whom Christ had been promised. They were poorer than the wise men and most likely poor themselves as they had the night watch on some sheep. They lived in Jesus’ homeland and were very near to where He was born. Their occupation was not the most respected in that time. The text tells us that they were surprised by the birth announcement from the angels.
What they have in common is part of the greatest news of all time. They both respond in faith and with worship. Imagine if they lacked faith and did not visit the baby Jesus even though told about him in their differing ways. The wise men knelt down and worshiped the infant Jesus. The shepherds, like the angels who told them, glorified and praised God for what they had seen. Praising and glorifying are a form of worship so their experience caused them to worship God. Both groups respond if faith and worship. Experiencing Jesus should result in worship. This is the desired outcome of the nativity and Jesus’ birth.
The 'Us' of the Nativity
Today many fear they are or may be excluded from Christ. But all are welcome to respond in faith and worship. The wise men and shepherds teach this. Each group has something that suggests they are not expected to be the ones to come and worship. To be sure the Jew/Gentile division is the main one. For the Jews, the Gentiles (or those who were not Jewish) were not part of God’s people and the anticipated Messiah was largely thought to be exclusively for the Jews. But even within the Jewish community, one might expect religious leaders or priests or those of high esteem to be told first by God. The nativity blows these expectations out of the water (Isaiah 9:2, Psalm 86:9, Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19).
The wise men are Gentiles and far off. Who would guess they would come and worship. But they are rich and respected which many take, especially in that day, as signs of having God’s blessing. Also they were looking for Jesus. So these may be inferred as characteristics we look for in worshippers.
The shepherds on the other hand are Jewish and live in Israel. Of course they are welcome by this criteria. But also they were poor and of a lower occupation and were not even looking for Jesus. By these we might not expect them to be invited to the party.
But the good news is, and we see it so clearly in the nativity, all manner of humanity has been called to worship God through Jesus Christ. It does not matter your background, occupation, status, financial assets, or whether you are even looking for God. His call does not extend only to Jews or the rich or any other category. Jesus came to save people from all stripes – whether you are being drug by a sheep or have it all together. All people are welcome to respond to in faith and worship Jesus.
This Christmas season, when you see a nativity let it remind you to worship Jesus. It is all about Him. Let it remind you that all are welcome to respond in faith and worship Jesus. Who are the people in your life who need to hear the good news of Jesus? Who needs to hear that they too are welcome? Like God, the proud father, told of the birth of His Son to the shepherds, let us too tell of the birth of Jesus and call ourselves and others to worship Him.