Beck column: Meaning of Nativity scenes
I recently happened across a DVD, “The Nativity Scene.” I watched it three times before trying to write this to remind myself of what we think we know even if we don’t know all the details. I doubt if any of us will really ever know all we should! After watching the DVD, I decided to use the internet to compare facts about Bible history.
I searched to find out what the average weather and temperature is like in Bethlehem on December 25th and discovered that it is often even colder there than here. History says Jesus was most likely born in September when it was still warm and sheep and shepherds were still “abiding in the fields” which they would not be doing in December. It made me feel good to know that the Mother of Jesus did not have to “bring forth” Baby Jesus in the cold. (Most everyone knows how bad I hate to be cold.)
The Nativity scene is the most recognized symbol of Christianity after the cross. Nativity comes from the Latin verb meaning “to be born.” The word crčche was adopted by the French and English from the Germanic word kreche, which means crib. We always called this the manger. After listening to the documentary several times, I asked a few friends how they pronounce the word crčche. This may seem strange to some Christians, but I wasn’t really sure myself of the correct pronunciation. I think I will remember now that it rhymes with mesh.
Several theologians discussed the art and spirit of the crčche. The prophet, Isaiah, predicted the coming of a Hebrew Messiah. The gospels of Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 2:1-2:52 were written several decades after the death of Christ. Storytelling changed to art and sculpture around 900AD when medieval England began to prosper.
Many of the things that are portrayed in the Nativity scenes have been added. The appearance of the ox and ass were early additions from the prophecy of Isaiah. My friend, the other Linda, reminded me that would be because the donkey (ass) was Mary’s transportation to Bethlehem. One of the first objects discussed was the wooden stable as we see it. There was very little wood to have built a stable in Bethlehem. Most stables there were in caves or dug out in hillsides.
In his version, Luke tells how the angels (from the Greek word messenger) announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds. (Luke 2:9-15)
Have you ever wondered why the angels announced the birth to the shepherds? According to the theologians, shepherds were the “poorest of the poor,” and they were the worst gossips of the time.
The shepherds really became the first evangelists carrying the good news to the surrounding country. A multitude of angels appeared before them singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace good will toward man;” so of course, angels, shepherds, and sheep became a part of the Nativity Scene.
In Chapter 1:18-25 Matthew told about the birth of Christ similar to Luke’s version. But in Chapter 2, Matthew tells about the visit of the Magi.
Magi is another word often pronounced differently. I always thought of it sounding as the beginning of the word magic sounds. But on this DVD, the theologians pronounced it as “May-gi;” so that would be reason enough for the addition of camels on the Nativity scene as they were the means of travel for the wealthy kings.
Well, how it is pronounced is not as important as was their visit to the Christ child. The wise men are often referred to as “The Three Kings.” The Bible does not really say how many kings there were but throughout history it has become accepted that there were three because of the number of gifts.
These gifts are named in the Bible and they were similar offerings and gifts given to kings. Myrrh was used as anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume and gold as something of great value.
Traditions identify a variety of names; in western Christianity, the names of the kings are Melchior, Balthazar, and Gasper. I do not remember being taught anything about their names. At our little church plays, the wise men came to the manger just as the shepherds did. But you can only portray so much with young children in a small country church. Those plays were very special to us even if we didn’t have all the details perfect. We were acting as if we were really part of “The Nativity scene” at the birth of Christ.
As an adult, I was able to attend an annual Christmas program at a church in Spartanburg, S.C. It celebrated the arrival of the Magi as in Chapter 2:11 which reads: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary…” That really brought scripture to life as if we were present when they arrived with their gifts. In this play Mary was holding a child of about two years old. Some believe that was how long it would have taken them to journey that far. (Epiphany is a Christian holiday on January 6 celebrating the visit of the Magi to Baby Jesus…a period known as the twelve days of Christmas.)
After the arrival of the Magi in the play, other characters were going down the aisle to kneel before King Jesus. An elderly disabled pauper was hobbling on crutches and accidentally fell at the altar. My brother and I looked at each other and tears came forth as I whispered to him, “God can even use handicapped folks, can’t he?”
One of the main things discussed in this DVD was how “The Nativity scene’ is known all over the world and is always portrayed with characters dressed in native attire. The Bible says the babe was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and this varies in different climates. But the theologians say that art is what really changed the portrayal of Jesus holding his arms open to the world to receive all who call on him.
This can be a very interesting study as long as we remember that “The Nativity Scene” is the birth of Jesus Christ, the foundation of Christianity and the reason for celebrating Christmas. Merry Christmas to all Christians everywhere and prayers for those who are not!
Linda Beck lives in Woodleaf.