A Nativity Epiphany
Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12
Believe it or not, it’s still Christmas. For another couple of days, or so. The season of Christmas begins on December 25th, and continues for twelve days (the 12 days of Christmas) until Epiphany – January 6. Epiphany is the day when we remember the coming of the wise men – the magi – as they brought their gifts to Jesus. This event might have happened as long as two years after Jesus’ birth, which might come as a bit of a surprise since we usually include wise men in our nativity sets.
Recently I came across an article in The Atlantic entitled “Your Christmas Nativity Scene Is a Lie,” (now there’s a rosy title) by Jonathan Merritt. Merritt points out that there may not have three wise men, as the Bible never tells us how many there were. Historically, people have assumed there were three because of the three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But, we don’t really know how many there were. So, what do we do? If our nativity sets are a lie, as Merritt claims, we ought to clear up the lie and tell the truth, right?
Sure, being informed is important, but I also think something else is going on in our nativity sets, something that is done intentionally. Perhaps the angels, the shepherds, the animals, and the wise men weren’t ever all under one roof at one time. Maybe there weren’t three wise men, or maybe there were. But that doesn’t mean our nativities are lying or that we shouldn’t put them up as we celebrate Christmas.
I think our nativity sets communicate something deeply profound – a “mystery of Christ,” as it says in our reading from Ephesians 3.
But, first, let’s start with this question: What are our nativity sets trying to teach us? Because – after all – nativity sets are little (or big!) works of art. And, art may deviate from accurate timelines, or locations, or themes in order to teach us something that we might not be able to learn another way.
Take, for instance, Michelangelo’s painting of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – called “The Creation of Adam.” The Bible says that Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, but Michelangelo’s work depicts God and Adam – God in the heavens surrounded by the hosts of heaven, and Adam on earth – extending a hand and finger toward each other. Michelangelo knew Scripture, but perhaps he was teaching us something about the way he viewed the relationship between God and humanity.
Or, in Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” The painting depicts the father embracing the prodigal while the elder brother looks on disapprovingly. In the parable Jesus tells, the elder brother is in the field when his younger brother returns home. He returns to the house, and the party for his brother is already in full swing. Was Rembrandt’s painting wrong? Or was it perhaps trying to teach us something about the two brothers that we could not have observed in any other way?
In the account from Matthew 2, the wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. They were trying to find the one who was born king of the Jews. They asked Herod where they could find him, and Herod’s reaction was one of envy and anger. He wouldn’t have it that these men from far away would pay homage and give gifts to any king other than himself. Something had happened that was undermining the rule of Herod, and Herod tried to use the wise men as part of his plan to ensure his power and rule would continue. Matthew references Micah 5 when he writes in verse 6, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
In Micah 5, the exact quotation says, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” From little Bethlehem would come the one who had been long-awaited. From an unexpected place would come the expected one.
The world had been turned upside down – a Savior from an unexpected place, in an unexpected way. And the wise men from far away brought him gifts and paid him homage when his own people weren’t even able to recognize him for who he was.
In our nativity sets we’ve got Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus front and center. And, nativities have been that way since the beginning. In 1223, it is believed that St. Francis of Assisi put together the first nativity. He preached about the birth of Jesus, and while he did so onlookers could see the Holy Family and a couple of animals – portrayed by real people and animals. The idea of living nativities and pageants grew, and it wasn’t long later that sculpted nativities were used in churches, and also displayed in homes.
But why? Why have nativities grown from depicting the Holy Family and a few animals to elaborate sets with many more characters?
I disagree with Jonathan Merritt’s idea that our nativities are lying to us. Instead, I see them as a profound teaching tool – works of art – that teach us something amazing and mysterious about our faith.
In the creche – the nativity scene – we learn in a tangible way the truth that God’s embrace transcends our social conventions.
Think about it: in the center of the scene, a young girl called upon by God to do something that would have brought disgrace upon her and the one engaged to her, a carpenter who has been called on to marry his pregnant fiancee despite the fact that the child wasn’t his own, and a baby who was the Word made flesh. Surrounding the Holy Family, we’ve got the angels and hosts of heaven. We’ve got the star that hung in the sky as a visible and celestial testimony to the birth of the promised one. And we’ve also got the shepherds who had been working out in the fields with their sheep.
Add into this mix the wise men who had journeyed from afar with their lavish gifts, and I see a picture of heaven. Young and old, rich and poor, the highest of heaven, and the lowly on earth – all are brought together in the amazing, mysterious, welcoming embrace of God.
In the Gospel of John, just before Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, the Pharisees remark that “the world has gone after him!” And right on the heels of this declaration, we learn that it’s true. Some Greeks have come looking for Jesus, and when Philip and Andrew tell Jesus this, Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
Perhaps this seems strange, but from the very beginning, God’s plan included bringing in the ends of the earth. We see this in our nativities – that from the very beginning, God was making a plan that would include the whole world. We see this as Jesus journeys toward the cross and draws all people to himself. And we will continue to see this movement of all being brought in – those who are already very near, and those who are still far off – until God’s Kingdom has fully come.
This New Year, may you go forward knowing that there’s room for you near the manger, and at the foot of the cross. There is a place for you in the body of Christ. God’s love is wide enough, broad enough, deep enough, and high enough for all of us. Whether you feel close to God or far off, whether you have been seeking faith and understanding your whole life or you’ve just started on your journey, here in the nativity we see that there is a place for us.
We are here.
We are loved.