And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:8–16, ESV).
The nativity scene (or crèche) is one of the most popular Christmas decorations. Many homes and churches display one throughout Advent and Christmas. According to tradition, it was invented by St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) as a simple teaching aide to help people remember the biblical account of Jesus’ birth. All the key players are present: The Virgin Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a few shepherds, three wise men, one or two angels, and a bunch of animals. In a society when most people could not read, such a visual aide was necessary to teach a central story of the Bible.
It may not tell the story perfectly. For example, the shepherds came to visit the baby Jesus possibly within 24 hours of his birth, whereas the Magi (who were not kings) came possibly as late as two years later, when the Holy Family was now living in a house. Nevertheless, we can see the main figures in the account of Jesus’ birth together in one location at once. However, it works as an effective story-telling device.
The story of Jesus’ birth has become so familiar to most Christians, though, that many of us miss a few key points. Consider the key characters:
- Mary was a virgin, but could anybody really believe that? An unwed woman could be pregnant in only one way: via premarital sex. In a very religious society, the punishment could be as severe as stoning. At the very least, she could face rejection by the community, perhaps even her parents and immediate family. The best she could hope for would be a quiet divorce by her husband and a life of shame and rejection (betrothal was legally binding). She actually got better than she hoped for.
- Joseph was a working-class artisan, probably living day-to-day. Although we think of him as a carpenter, he may have engaged in other skilled work with his hands to build and repair things. Could he really believe Mary’s excuse, that the baby was sent by God and she had not had sex with another man? If he married her, it would suggest to the rest of the community that he must be the real father. One can only imagine how his carpentry business would fare when he is known as the reprobate who could not control himself until his wedding night.
- The shepherds: We like to think of them as gentle souls who spent their days taking care of cute little farm animals. However, most people in Bethlehem would have a different perspective: a bunch of dirty, uncouth rogues who smell like sheep droppings, among the outcasts of society. They may not be as bad as tax collectors and harlots, but they would still not be likely to get an invitation to celebrate the birth of a King.
- The wise men or Magi were perhaps some of the worst pagans a Jew could imagine. Tradition refers to them as kings, but they may have been emissaries for a king. Magi were actually astrologers, who made their living engaging in a practice deemed abominable in the Old Testament (see, e.g., Isaiah 47:13–15).
Who is missing from this story? The Roman emperor with his appointed regional vassal King Herod, the wealthy, the religious elite, the powerful, etc. The people whom we would most likely include in a strategy to save the world from certain doom are not in the nativity scene. God chose to send His Son into the world through the womb of an ordinary woman, one whose family would never appear in the historical records otherwise, into a very ordinary family, in a small town within a politically insignificant occupied territory within in a pagan empire. He chose to reveal His Son first to people from the outer fringes of society and pagan astrologers who found out about Him via a condemned occult practice of observing omens.
However, you do not need to be left out of the nativity scene. Jesus came to invite you to have eternal life with Him and His Father. While the world worships at the altar of materialism and Santa Claus, join the shepherds and wise men to bow before the Son of God in the manger. Invite Jesus to take His place at the center of the most ordinary aspects of your life, so that Christmas can remain with you every day.
This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.
2 responses to “Shepherds, Wise Men, and Ordinary People”
Only the Gospel of Matthew tells of the Magi, or wise men, following a star, but he doesn’t say there are three of them, and they likely arrived quite some time after the birth.
That’s very true. Jesus may have already been a toddler walking around the house. (Matthew also says that Jesus was in a house, not a manger, when they arrived.)