Last year when I gave the Christmas address I talked about Christmas traditions. This year I would like to talk about one of the most familiar scenes of the Christmas story, the nativity scene.
We are all very familiar with the nativity scene from Christian art, and school and church nativity plays. One of my earliest memories was of taking part in a church nativity play, where I was given the role of being one of the sheep. I was obviously a very reluctant sheep, because instead of going to the front of church with the other sheep and shepherds, I tried to escape by running down the aisle and heading for the exit!
Origins of the first nativity scene
The first nativity scene dates back to 1223, when St Francis of Assisi recreated the scene of Christ's birth in the town of Greccio. St Francis was worried that ordinary people had no real grasp of what had happened at Christ's birth. So he secured the assistance of a rich patron and set about recreating the original scene. He used a life size figure of the Christ child, live animals, a manger, straw and so forth. He and his friends played the parts of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and the Magi. People flocked to see this scene, and it helped bring alive the Christmas story.
My wife comes from the city of Torun in Poland, and around the city you can find many life size nativity scenes on display. One of the most interesting nativity displays is found in St Catherine's Church in the city. Their nativity display is a full size stable, which is constructed around the altar, so that the altar is in the middle of the stable building. But what makes it so special, is that they have real animals in the stable, including chickens, rabbits and even a donkey.
The Bible's Depiction of the Nativity
The nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Luke's narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found in a manger. Whereas Matthew's narrative tells of Magi who follow a star to the place where Jesus dwells, which indicates that the Magi found Jesus some time after his birth, maybe weeks or even months later. Matthew's account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the Magi and the star. However both Matthew & Luke's account of the birth of Jesus tend to be brought together, to form the nativity scene that we are familiar with, so we have the shepherds and the angels of Luke's account, meeting together at the manger with Matthew's Magi and the star.
The Nativity Scene & Art
Over the centuries the nativity scene has been portrayed by countless artists. I want to focus today on just one painting, entitled 'Adoration of the Kings' painted by the Rennaisance artist Jan Gossaert in about 1510, and which can be viewed in the National Gallery.
Gossaert sets this picture not in a stable, or straw, but in the ruins of a grand building. The characters in the painting aren't dressed in the clothes of 1st century Palestine, but of the early 16th century Europe.
Ox & Ass
If you look careful you can spot an ox and an ass in this picture. When we see a nativity scene featuring an ox and an ass, we tend not to think very much about it. First of all it Bethlehem is 80 miles away from Nazareth, it would have been a long walk for someone who was pregnant. So we tend to think that maybe Mary travelled on a donkey, so it is logical to see a donkey in the nativity scene, although the Bible doesn't tell us how Mary travelled to Bethlehem.
But what the Bible does tell us is that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, 'She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.' (Luke 2:7) A manger is of course a feeding trough, which would have been in the area where animals would have been kept, so it is therefore logical to depict animals in the nativity scene.
However, there is also a special symbolism to the ox and ass in the nativity scene.
In Isaiah 1:3 it says, The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib; But Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Isaiah lived 700 years before the birth of Jesus, but these words have been understood to relate to the coming of Jesus.
Considerable symbolism is attached to the ox and the ass. The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel, and also the Old Testament sacrificial worship (thus pointing ahead to Jesus' own sacrifice on the cross). While the ass represents humility and readiness to serve.
Interestingly the ox and ass appear in some of the earliest depictions of the nativity, as can be seen on this 4th century Roman Christian sarcophagus.
The other people that we see in this scene are the wise men, who form an essential part of the Christmas story. The Bible doesn't tell us how many magi there were, but there are usually three portrayed, because they brought three gifts to Jesus.
Three young children were playing the parts of the wise men in a school nativity place. At one point they came to Mary and Joseph at the manger and said the following:
Magi 1 Here, this is gold
Magi 2 This is myrrh
Magi 3 And Frank sent this.
The gifts that the wise men brought are of course highly symbolic. Gold was a royal gift, which signified Jesus' kingship. Frankincence, is a fragrant gun resin which is burned as incense, and this denoted Jesus role as priest – the one who mediates between God and his people. Myrrh is an aromatic resin, which was used in perfumes, anointing oil, medicine and embalming. This gift for-shadows Jesus' death on the cross. Years later when Jesus was crucified, he was offered wine mixed with myrrh as a palative (Mark 15:23), and when he was buried his body would have been anointed with myrrh (John 19:39).
Like the ox and the ass, the visit of the wise men appears to have been predicted by Isaiah, who writes.
• Isaiah 60.1,3,6
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. …A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
In this painting there is also a reference to Moses. It is not at all obvious, but if you look careful you can see a staff at the feet of Jesus, which is engraved with the name Moses and the Ten Commandments.
Moses predates Jesus by 1300 years, so what is he doing in a nativity scene? The answer is that in the Bible, Moses was the law giver, he was the one to whom God gave the Ten Commandments. But with the coming of Jesus, the law has been superseded by grace. The apostle John writes "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The Law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:14, 16-17)
There is another important Old Testament figure that appears in this picture, Abraham. Again it is not easy to see, but at the top of the column behind Mary's right side, there is depicted the story of the sacrifice of Isaac – which is understood to foreshadow the sacrificial nature of Jesus' death. It is a difficult story to understand, because God instructs Abraham to go and sacrifice his only son Isaac, the son who God specifically gave to Abraham. Abraham obeys God's command, and just as he is about to sacrifice Isaac, we read that 'the angel of the Lord called to him and said, 'Abraham! Abraham!..., Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.' (Genesis 22.11&12) This story prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because Jesus is prepared to offer his life for our sins. In John 3:16 we have the famous words, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
There are a few other interesting details in this painting to notice. For example what looks like a star parting the clouds, is not just the guiding star of the wise men, but represents the light of God breaking through into the world.
We can also see a dove in this picture (see above), descending from the star, from God, which is a symbol of God's Holy Spirit, and a reminder of Jesus' baptism, when the Spirit of God descended like a dove onto Jesus.
Neil MacGregor in his book Seeing Salvation writes, "Making an image of God who has become man is… a tricky business. Artist's attempting it have to negotiate a series of specifically visual problems, unknown to authors. Paradox is easy to write, but hard to paint. The Gospel tells us quite straightforwardly that the helpless, swaddled infant is in reality God incarnate, but how do you show that it is God in nappies, that the purpose of this child is to redeem the world by his death? How can a painter make clear that the man brutally being put to death on the cross, to every human eye a man completely ordinary and like any other, is also totally divine; that limitless power has chosen absolute submission? … Gossaert's picture does not show us the birth of Christ: it paints a meditation on the meaning of the birth of Christ and why it matters to us now."
The Real Nativity
This painting and other depictions of the nativity, have a large degree of artistic licence.
In most nativity plays, the inn keeper has a small but very important role to play. There was a little boy who was really disappointed about not being chosen to play Joseph in the school nativity play. Instead he was given the role of the innkeeper instead, and over the weeks leading up to the play plotted his revenge. The day of the performance came. Mary and Joseph came to the inn and knocked on the door. The innkeeper opened the door a crack and looked at them coldly. "Can you give us a room for the night?" asked Jospeh. Then the innkeeper flung the door wide, beamed at them and said, "Come in, come in! You can have the best room in the hotel!" There was a pause. But Joseph was a quick thinker. He looked over the innkeeper's shoulder, then turned to Mary and said, "We're not staying in a dump like that. Come on, Mary, we'll sleep in the stable!"
However there is a possibility that there may not have been an inn or a stable at all. The Greek word which Luke uses in his gospel, and which we translate as 'inn' is Kataluma. Kataluma can mean 'inn', but it can also just as easily can mean guest room, or spare room, or anywhere you might put visitors.
Luke uses the word kataluma twice in his gospel: once in the passage about there being no room for Mary and Jospeh, and once to describe the room in which the Last Supper took place; the 'upper room'. But in the story of the Good Samaritan, the word that Luke uses to describe the inn is a different Greek word (pandocheion).
A better translation of what Luke is saying is not that the inn was full, but that there was no room in the guest room, or spare room – which is a subtle but important distinction.
Luke tells us that the reason Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem is because Caesar August issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, so everyone had to go to their own town to register. It therefore would be logical to assume that Joseph probably had relatives living in Bethlehem.
Most poor families at that time would have either lived in a cave or a simple home built on two levels. The lower level was where everyday living took place, and also where the animals would have been kept, and the upper level would have been where the family slept. So what Luke might be indicating is that there was no spare room in the residential part of the house, the place was packed out. So Mary and Joseph had to go to the lower level, where the animals were kept. This would explain why a stable is never mentioned in the Bible story. So the friendly inn keeper, that is such an important part of so many nativity plays, may not have even existed. What happened was that Jesus was put downstairs with the animals, because the rest of the house was full.
What difference does this make, apart from ruining many a nativity play? Well for one thing it shows the truth of the incarnation, of Jesus becoming man. It brings alive the fact that Jesus was born in a very specific place at a very specific time. And that place was a cramped peasant's home in the tiny town of Bethlehem.
In many ways it's a much more 'ordinary' scene, it reminds us that Jesus' home was an ordinary peasant dwelling. The Son of God is laid, not in some kind of rustic cot, but in the place where usually the animals ate. He slept in hay full of ticks and fleas, in a home that was small and cramped.
Renaissance painters like Jan Gossaert tended to paint for wealthy patrons. They did not want to see conditions of slum like poverty. So we have become conditioned to see a roomy stable full of colourful characters. We have sanitised the unsanitary stable. We have swept it clean from the dirty straw, given the animals a wash and brush up, spared a bit of myrrh around to cover the unsavoury smell of sweat and animal dung.
But if we do this, I think we miss the point. Because the birth of Jesus WAS dirty and smelly and poor and cramped and hard and utterly, utterly, wonderful.
I want to finish today with a reflection by Max Luxcado (adapted).
The stable stinks like all stables do. The stench of urine, dung, and sheep reeks pungently in the air. The ground is hard, the hay scarce. Cobwebs cling to the ceiling and a mouse scurries across the dirt floor. A more lowly place of birth could not exist.
Wide awake is Mary. Her head rests on the soft leather of Joseph's saddle. The pain has been eclipsed by wonder. She looks into the face of the baby. Her son. Her Lord. His Majesty. At this point in history, the human being who best understands who God is and what he is doing is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. She can't take her eyes off him. Somehow Mary knows she is holding God. So this is he. She remembers the words of the angel, "His kingdom will never end."
He looks anything but a king. His face is prunish and red. His cry, though strong and healthy, is still the helpless and piercing cry of a baby. And he is absolutely dependent upon Mary for his well-being.
She touches the face of the infant-God. How long was your journey!
This baby had overlooked the universe. These rags keeping him warm were the robes of eternity. His golden throne room had been abandoned in favour of a dirty sheep pen. And worshipping angels had been replaced with kind but bewildered shepherds.
Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.