As this season of Advent began, I had all intentions of doing several posts about it. Events, however, didn’t allow for that because I try to write about things while they’re current and the events in Newtown were something that couldn’t be ignored. But, while there are things I still want to address on that subject, today I’m back to Advent and the Christmas story.
You may or may not know it, but the classic nativity scene (in a stable, with the magi, shepherds and animals all present together) appears nowhere in the Bible. While Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger, it never says he was born in a stable and the magi appear nowhere in his story. Matthew, however, has wise men, but no shepherds and says very little about His actual birth and just says He was born in Bethlehem; the Magi didn’t come on the scene till sometime after. So, where did this iconic picture come from? St. Francis of Assisi, that’s where. In 1223, Francis and, probably, some monks of his order arranged the first nativity scene which included both the magi and the shepherds. Because Luke mentions a manger, someone decided he must have been born in a stable and, because stables house animals, they brought in some livestock. Voila, you have the classic nativity scene. It’s pretty, it’s traditional and, in reality, doesn’t have much to do with the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth.
There are other issues with those stories. The Gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, are split on the topic. Two, Mark and John, don’t even mention it, both starting with his baptism by John. Matthew and Luke, who do talk about it, don’t tell the same story. Both say He was born in Bethlehem and, beyond that, they’re completely different. Luke tells a story about a child born in less than auspicious circumstances while Matthew’s story does more to paint Him as a successor to Moses and David. There are events in both that cloud the issue even further: a virgin birth, the murder of children and a census that aren’t listed in historical accounts, trips that stretch credibility and angels. How do we reconcile all these crazy things?
First of all, stop reading these stories as historical accounts; they’re not and were never meant to be. Like the early books of the Old Testament, they function better as allegory, i.e. a symbolic narrative; in this case, the symbol being that Jesus was special. They were written this way because the writers obviously thought that someone as special as Jesus must have had a special birth. The title of this article is “Did it Really Happen That Way?” The answer is it doesn’t really matter. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, other than being a poor Jewish kid, mean very little. What does matter is what He did after that birth: He brought hope to the hopeless. He expects us to do the same.