Friday, December 27, 2013

The Nativity

Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve A, December 24, 2013

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

            Rachel Held Evans is a popular Christian blogger. Recently, she wrote a post about how difficult it is to find the perfect nativity set. She wonders, “How hard can it be to find a handmade, fair-trade, biblically-accurate, ethnically-realistic, reasonably-priced, child-safe nativity scene?” She concludes, pretty hard, actually. After looking on the internet, I agree with her.

Handmade fair-trade nativity scenes are available, but they usually depict other cultures’ interpretations of the nativity. 

Some nativity scenes disregard the biblical story and leave out important characters, like the wise men or shepherds. 

American and European nativities completely disregard the ethnicity of the holy family. 

Jesus is often blue-eyed and blond, 

yet for some reason one of the wise men is often black.

Many nativities are reasonably priced, but some are not. 

Child-safe nativities are a great way to teach the Christmas story to kids, but they fail miserably in other categories.

Rachel’s quest for the perfect nativity scene ended in failure. 

In the comments on her post, nobody had the perfect solution. Some didn’t care that Jesus is often blond-haired and blue-eyed. Others suggested that Rachel keep a collection of nativities. The sum of the whole may equal what she was looking for.

Why, I wonder, does no nativity scene seem to work just right? What is missing from those figurines? Let’s look at each character to find out. Well, maybe not the wise men. They don’t come until Epiphany on January 6th anyway.

Let’s start with the animals. How could they go wrong with animals? Well, some cultures put their own animals in the nativity, so there’s that.

We know that the shepherds probably had their sheep nearby, although I doubt they brought their whole flock in town!

Because Jesus was born in a stable, barn animals were certainly there. That explains the donkeys and oxen, but what about camels? Maybe the wise men brought those. What gets me every time is that the animals are almost never scaled correctly. 

Look at that tiny camel!

Next, let’s look at the shepherds. The shepherds were out in the fields keeping their sheep together. They probably had been in the fields for some days, so they were quite dirty.

Pigpen should have played the shepherd, not Linus!

In fact, shepherds were held in very low regard in society. They had their sheep feed on others’ private property, so most landowners despised them.

Shepherds in nativity scenes never look degraded or scorned. They are always so clean and beautiful.

 Often, one is holding a lamb in his arms. When we don’t see the shepherds as homeless, conniving social scum, we forget how wondrous God was to announce our Savior’s birth to them first. The angels didn’t appear to the rich and powerful; the angels appeared to the lowest of the low.

 God sent the angels to them because God loves these least among men. And the angels’ message was so extraordinary that the shepherds had to see Jesus for themselves. I doubt that they stopped along the way to wash their faces.

Next, let’s talk about those angels.

 We don’t know much about these heavenly folk, so maybe they were in white robes and had white, downy wings. Or maybe they didn’t. Angel in Greek, ἄγγελος, really just means “messenger.” These angels are messengers of God. Surely they didn’t look ordinary, but maybe they didn’t look extraordinary either.

The heavenly host is another story.

We have domesticated the term “host” to mean “a lot,” but a host is an army. Can you imagine an army of angels appearing out of nowhere to praise God? Most nativity sets don’t come with an army of angels.

And the one angel that they do have of course is floating over the manger scene. Many angels appear in the Christmas narratives; they appear to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. Yet none of these messengers appear in the barn where Jesus was born. Maybe the nativity set needs a field to stage the scene of an army of angels coming to shepherds and their entire flocks.

Now that we have covered all of the secondary characters, let’s move onto the holy family. First, Joseph.

We know from first century culture that Joseph most likely was considerably older than Mary, but some nativity sets take it too far.

Joseph was probably in his thirties, not his eighties!

Next, Mary.

 We know that Mary was a young mother, probably in her early teens. Many nativity sets show her kneeling by the manger in her demure blue. For just having given birth, she looks really good! 

She doesn’t have any baby weight, nor does she look exhausted, sweaty, or completely worn out. Mothers have told me that it is absurd that Mary would be on her knees right after giving birth. I will have to take their word for it.

Finally, we come to eight pound six ounce newborn infant Jesus.

Jesus who isn’t to scale in many representations.

Jesus was not born half-grown! Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth to keep his arms and legs straight, so only his head should be visible. He was put in a manger, the feeding trough, which I doubt was as clean as this hay.

We have seen that nativities are woefully inadequate. 

They can barely represent the characters involved, let alone be able to express the emotions of the event. 

When you look at a nativity set, do you feel that “The hopes and fears of all the years are met” in Jesus? The fear turned into joy, the danger turned into peace, the despair turned into hope. Jesus does all of this for us, and for the world.

Nativities show the baby Jesus, but they cannot express how he is fully God and fully human. They cannot show the magnitude of this event, of how this world is changed forever in that one tiny child. No visual representation can do that.

Which is why we are here. We come to worship Jesus, to hear his story anew. Together with our families and friends we light our candles and sing our praises of his birth. In this place, God comes among us - in the word, in the song, and in the breaking of the bread. In these moments, God changes us. God empowers us to overcome whatever is stopping us from sharing the good news.
In our fear, God says, "Be not afraid."
In our grief, God says, "I am with you."
In our despair, God says, "I will give you salvation."
Our God found in Jesus loves us in these profound ways. Jesus gives us all of the joy, peace, and hope that we can ever need. Empowered by God, we like the shepherds can go out and spread the good news of Christ's birth to all who will hear. For all of who Jesus is and will be is found in his first moments on this earth - as that little baby squirming and crying in a trough of dirty hay. Amen.

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